PennDOT's bill for guardrail adds insult to her injury


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A January crash on snowy Interstate 80 in Mercer County sheared off Marzena Mulawka's right leg and shattered her left leg, pelvis and back, turning the 26-year-old's life upside down.

In spite of it, her radiant smile beams in dozens of photographs taken during and after her five months in Pittsburgh hospitals, where she underwent surgery eight times and had bone, muscle and skin grafts and an assortment of titanium plates and screws implanted.

She calls Jan. 3 "the day I proved to myself and everyone else that I can get through anything with my strength, faith, willpower, passion and love for life."

There's one thing that sours Ms. Mulawka: a bill for $2,509.42 sent to her family by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for guardrail damaged in the crash -- the very guardrail that she says tore through her car door and cut off her leg.

"(PennDOT) should be ashamed for being such a cold-blooded and unprofessional organization. This bill is simply atrocious," she wrote in a lengthy e-mail to the department this month.

"I'm the type of person who looks at the glass as being half-full. But come on, already," she said in a telephone interview from Murfreesboro, Tenn., where she is recovering. "I can't believe they would have sent something like that."

PennDOT spokesman Rich Kirkpatrick said "the situation (she) described is a tragedy" and said the matter was under review.

He said the department tries to recover the cost of guardrails damaged in crashes because of its limited budget, but the recovery claims typically are waived in cases of serious injury or death.

"I just don't know why this happened," Mr. Kirkpatrick said.

Ms. Mulawka, an Illinois native, was driving from Chicago to New York on the night of Jan. 3 to fulfill what she called a "lifelong dream" to live in New York City and work for the FBI as a forensic scientist.

The FBI had offered her a job and she also planned to pursue a second master's degree and her Ph.D. "All the things I had worked diligently for over so many years were finally all coming together," she said.

As she traveled on I-80 in Lackawannock in a snowstorm, she says, a tractor-trailer struck her vehicle from behind, sending it spinning into the end of a guardrail, which pierced the vehicle with such force that the driver's door was pushed over to the passenger side.

"During impact, the guardrail amputated my right leg below the knee, and broke both my tibia and fibula on my left leg, pushing both bones out of both sides of my ankle," she said in her e-mail to PennDOT.

Not knowing at first how bad her injuries were, she pulled herself out of the wreckage and along the ground, away from traffic and down a snowy embankment.

The tractor-trailer did not stop, she said. A couple from Philadelphia that had been traveling behind her did.

"She was crawling out. She was on her hands, basically, dragging herself through the snow," said Joe Stewart, who went to Ms. Mulawka's aid along with his soon-to-be wife, Tricia.

Mr. Stewart called 911 and took his coat off and laid it in the snow, then removed his flannel shirt and used it as a blanket and placed his cap on Ms. Mulawka's head. The couple also packed snow onto her bleeding legs.

Two nearby Amish residents, Daniel and Eli Byler of New Wilmington, heard the crash and also came to help, Ms. Mulawka said.

On a night of treacherous roads and numerous crashes, it took paramedics more than two hours to reach the scene.

"The only thing I could think is they were busy that night," Mr. Stewart said.

Doctors wanted Ms. Mulawka flown to a Pittsburgh hospital but the weather was too bad, so she went by ambulance. Doctors later told her she had lost 60 percent of her blood.

In August, after she left the hospital and went to Tennessee to stay with her sister, a bill arrived at her father's home in Illinois. "Demand for payment is hereby made upon you by the Department of Transportation for the cost of repairing department property" damaged in the crash, it said.

It warned that failure to pay could result in a court judgment and additional costs for interest and legal fees.

"Awe and disgust," she said was her reaction to the bill, dated Aug. 12.

The department sent an overdue notice Sept. 26 and she responded on Oct. 7 with a 2,000-word e-mail to PennDOT's damage recovery unit, describing the accident and its aftermath.

"This incident and your guardrail scarred me, emotionally and physically, forever, disabled me, and delayed all of the dreams that I have worked so hard for and (PennDOT) has the audacity to send me this bill?

"Who is going to pay my hospital bills, my insurance deductible, my physical therapy bills, my lawyer bill, the bill for my prosthetic leg and constant adjustments, and all the other bills that have resulted from my accident and have totaled to well over one million dollars and counting?" she asked.

"In August 2010, my father received a bill from your organization. I cannot even imagine what it was like for him to see a bill for over $2,500 for the guardrail that tore off his daughter's leg and severely damaged her other leg, almost killing his daughter," she wrote.

She attached X-rays of her injuries and copies of medical bills.

PennDOT replied with a two-sentence message a week later saying the matter would be reviewed by the Office of Chief Counsel.

Ms. Mulawka also disputes a Pennsylvania State Police report of the crash that said her Ford Freestyle "somehow left the roadway" and blamed her for driving too fast for conditions.

She said the investigating officer never spoke to her or the Stewarts, the only known witnesses to the crash, and has not returned her phone calls.

The report confirms that the officer did not speak with Ms. Mulawka "due to her injuries," which it described as severe.

"I've never had a ticket in my life. I don't speed. After being a death investigator (for four years with the San Diego medical examiner's office), I've seen what happens when you speed," she said.

The report also lists the time of the crash as 10:20 p.m., which is more than two hours after it occurred, according to Ms. Mulawka and Mr. Stewart.

Now 27, Ms. Mulawka wears a prosthetic leg and has undergone intensive physical therapy to resume the life she had anticipated as she drove toward New York on that winter night. She said doctors are on the verge of allowing her to resume running, a passion of hers before the crash.

"I worked my butt off and I'm going to be walking the streets of New York pretty soon," she said.

In August, she traveled to Philadelphia to be a bridesmaid in Mr. and Ms. Stewart's wedding. She credits them with saving her life.

"I just stopped to help out," said Mr. Stewart, a garage door technician. "I get chills when I hear that now because I know her and I know what a special lady she is. She's inspiring. She's an amazing woman."


Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868. Visit "The Roundabout," the Post-Gazette's transportation blog, at post-gazette.com.


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