Trials & Litigation

'Routine' wrongful-death lawsuit turns into 11-year 'unholy mess'

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In 2002, lawyers filed what should have been a routine wrongful death suit on behalf of a 7-year-old Romanian girl who had watched in horror as her mother was crushed under the wheels of a Greyhound bus.

But 11 years later, as the Chicago Tribune (sub. req.) reports, that suit has turned out to be anything but routine.

The case, which is still in limbo, has spawned 13 other lawsuits; more than two dozen appeals; allegations of unethical behavior and conflicts of interest on the part of some prominent Chicago lawyers; and some possibly dicey decisions by at least one of Cook County’s most powerful judges.

Along the way, it has a created a legal morass so extraordinary that one judge called it “one of the most unholy messes” he’d ever seen.

The case began with a bus accident in 2002 which killed Claudia Zvunca, a 31-year-old Romanian woman who had recently settled in Chicago with her new husband and her 7-year-old daughter, Cristina. It was settled for $2.1 million in 2010–about a quarter of the amount one of the many judges on the case had valued it at–but the settlement was thrown out last May by a state appellate court and is now being appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The appeals court has also referred the matter to the state Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, saying it should investigate the actions of some of the lawyers in the case, including accusations that Zvunca’s widower’s lawyer, David Novoselsky, may have fabricated the claims in a federal lawsuit against Jeanine Stevens, the lead lawyer in the case.

Novoselsky had filed the suit against Stevens, who had Cristina living with her at one point, alleging fraud and child abuse. Although he claimed to have filed the suit on behalf of the Zvunca family, family members later said they had no knowledge of the filing. Novoselsky denies any wrongdoing. He is facing eight counts of unethical conduct in a case pending before the disciplinary commission.

Cristina, now 19 and living in Romania, told the Tribune the court system has failed her.

“This case destroyed my life,” she said. “In 12 years, we did not receive justice.”

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