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Victim's family calls on local officials to listen

 

By David Conti

In 2002, Michael Sukel collected 235 signatures from his Regent Square neighbors for a petition he delivered to city leaders, asking for improvements at the pedestrian crosswalks in front of his home on busy Braddock Avenue.

His pleas went unheeded.

Two years later, Sukel's wife was walking her dog through a crossing when a van struck and killed her and their pet.

"The local government has to listen to its citizens," Sukel, 36, said Thursday, a day after an Allegheny County jury awarded him and his wife's parents nearly $3.7 million from a lawsuit they filed against the city and the van's driver.

"I think the city really dropped the ball on this," he said.

Sukel made his first public comments since his wife, Evelyn H. Wei, 33, died on Jan. 23, 2004, two days after being struck by the van driven by Jan Jones, 63, of Swissvale.

"She was my best friend, my companion. She was full of life," Sukel said during a news conference with Wei's parents, Donald and Yuling L. Wei, of Monroeville.

City lawyers had fought the lawsuit, saying Jones was wholly responsible for the death. Evelyn Wei was standing in the middle of the road in the crosswalk waiting for traffic to subside when she was struck. Jones had testified that she never saw Wei.

But attorney John P. Gismondi presented evidence showing the city had ignored Sukel's petition, formal complaints to Mayor Tom Murphy's office and e-mails from City Council members to city traffic engineers asking for lighted signs and increased police patrols at the crossings.

The city had also moved the crosswalk from beneath a street light to a darker spot and had failed to repaint the crosswalk lines with reflective paint when they faded, Gismondi said.

Wei was a researcher at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Oakland. She received a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology in 1999 from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health and was a senior research principal in the school's department of psychiatry. Her mother is a senior research associate in the school's department of epidemiology.

Sukel and Wei's parents said the point of their lawsuit was to get the city to make the improvements -- some of which were made in the months after Wei's death -- and, as Sukel said, to send a message that "this level of apathy will not be accepted."

"This was never about the money," said Donald Wei, a retired engineer for Westinghouse Corp.

The family does not expect to see much of the $3.7 million award. State law caps a municipal government's damages at $500,000. Gismondi said that although Jones is insured, "it's not much." The jury assigned 20 percent of the damages to the city, and the rest to Jones.

Jones' attorney, Jeffrey Ramaley, did not return a call seeking comment.

City Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow said the city will "probably not" appeal the verdict. The city might challenge some of Common Pleas Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia's decisions during the trial.

"These are technical points, and they pale in importance to the fact that someone died," Morrow said.

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