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$5 Million for arm - was it worth it?

By Zay N. Smith

You have to ask Vincent Rodriguez the question. He’s had four years to think it over.

Would he really try to help again - even though it cost him an arm?

“Yes, yes-without any doubt,” he said.” And I’ll tell you how I know . . . . Just after I was trying to help and the train hit me, I was standing there with my arm ripped off, gushing blood.

“I was shouting-shouting for an ambulance-and this guy came along and just kept on walking.

“I learned that night what it’s like not to be helped.”

It started before sunrise on an October day in 1984 when Rodriguez, then a Marine lieutenant on furlough, was walking his mother’s dog near the railroad tracks at Grand and Cicero--and thought he heard shouts for help.

“I was trying to see what was going on--if anybody needed assistance,” he said.

He went over in the dark to take a look. He was hit by a piece of lumber that stuck out from a moving freight train--and he landed beneath the wheels.

He lost a left hand, a left forearm and a military career.

It ended Tuesday when a Cook County Circuit Court jury awarded Rodriguez $5,020,406.34 for his trouble--reportedly the largest such verdict in county history.

The verdict came against the Norfolk & Western Ry., whose train hit him, and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific RR, which owns the tracks.

Or maybe it didn’t quite end there.

“I was lying there in the hospital before for the longest time–and thinking it was all over,” he said.

“I knew I could never be a marine again–and I loved the corps and still do. I knew I could never play basketball or football again. I Knew I’d lost a lot of things forever.

“But then I thought some more–and I finally understood there was still a lot I could do with life my life.

“I’d spent time before all this working with the retarded and the handicapped. And these people had always inspired me–but I never quite understood until now.

“I decided that if I couldn’t play football, I could still play tennis or even Ping-Pong. And if I couldn’t be a marine, I could still do a lot of other things.

“I mean, you take what life gives you.”

Which is why Rodriguez, 35, is now at Illinois Wesleyan University, heading for a bachelor’s degree in accounting–with a nice little nest egg on the side, pending appeals, with hopes someday for a wife and a family.

And don’t get him wrong. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the megabucks.

“But it’s not the money--honest,” he said. “I have a good pension, good VA benefits. I get along without much.

“I’m just glad that I got my day in court. There had been implications that I was trying to steal and or even attempt suicide–and that was hard to take, on top of all of this.

“And maybe something else. Maybe what I’ve gone through can help some other people understand what I learned the hard way:

“Don’t take your life for granted. Don’t take anything for granted. You never know what you’re going to lose–or when.

“You just never know.”