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MBTA crash victim sought $8.6m; award is not quite $580,000

For two years, Samantha Mattei’s family had hoped for a multimillion-dollar award in their suit against the MBTA to pay the booming medical costs she has incurred since suffering a brain injury in a 2009 Green Line trolley crash, but their hopes were dashed Monday.

Mattei, a 23-year-old Salem resident who was studying math at Merrimack College, was one of several passengers hurt in the crash.

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The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority admitted liability because the trolley operator was found to have been sending text messages on his cellphone.

Mattei took the authority to court in 2011, asking for $8.6 million to pay for treatment and compensate for loss of future income and pain and suffering, court documents show.

But a jury in Essex Superior Court in Lawrence awarded nearly $580,000. After lawyers’ fees are deducted, the sum will barely pay for medical expenses to date of about $390,000, Fred Mattei, father of the victim, said Wednesday.

“It leaves us a very uncertain future about how we’re going to afford to take care of my daughter and pay her medical bills,” he said. “What dazzled me was that there was nothing awarded for her future care and nothing for her pain and suffering.”

Twenty-four passengers sued the MBTA. Nine suits were settled out of court for an average of $31,000. Some passengers went to trial and won large awards. A Scituate woman was given $1.2 million in 2012 because her injuries forced her to leave her job as a ticket agent for Delta Air Lines.

“We thank the jury for its careful consideration of all the evidence and testimony in this case,” MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said of Mattei’s lawsuit. “We believe the jurors’ decision was a fair and just one.”

The award angered Fred Mattei, who said his daughter has lost a bright future.

Samantha Mattei was a straight-A math and science student in college, but the crash damaged the part of her brain that allows her to do math. She has all but dropped out of school because she cannot concentrate on the calculus she was studying, Fred Mattei said.

“She is very depressed,” he said. “She says the numbers just swim; she can’t keep the numbers straight in her head.”

The key issue in the lawsuit was Mattei’s health before and after the crash.

When she was a teenager, Mattei was diagnosed with a somatoform disorder, a condition that causes a person to feel chronic pain without any physical causes, her father said.

Her immune system was weak, and she was often sick, he added.

But Fred Mattei said that Samantha’s symptoms had disappeared in the years prior to the accident, but have returned, exacerbated by her brain injury.

Lawyers for the MBTA argued that most of Samantha Mattei’s medical problems predated the crash and that the authority was therefore not liable for them, Fred Mattei said.

In such a case, lawyers from both sides generally call multiple medical experts to testify about how much victims’ injuries are likely to cost and how much future income they are apt to give up, said John Goldberg, a professor and an expert in tort law at Harvard Law School.

The jury is told to determine what constitutes a “fair and reasonable compensation,” he said.

Juries therefore have broad discretion to determine monetary awards in personal injury cases like Mattei’s, Goldberg said.

“It seems on its face very puzzling; it seems on its face very low,” he said of Mattei’s dollar award.

The trolley’s operator, Aiden Quinn, was also hurt in the crash, which caused about $10 million worth of damage to MBTA property.

Quinn pleaded guilty to negligence in 2010 and was sentenced to two years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

Quinn’s role in the crash was not an issue in the trial because the MBTA admitted liability, said Paul Mitchell, Mattei’s lawyer.

Todd Feathers can be reachedat todd.feathers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ToddFeathers.
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