DEC | 2003
$5,000,000 for a Shattered Dream
$5-million for a shattered dream
In 2001, a professional violinist lost her musical future at a red light. On Thursday a jury agreed that it was a high price to pay.By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUEPublished December 5, 2003[Times photo: Scott Keeler]Violinist Xiao-Cao Sha embraces her husband Dean Stein after the jury's decision.View related 10 News video:56k High-Speed
CLEARWATER - As a friend drove her to lunch, Xiao-Cao Sha's thoughts were on an evening performance with the Florida Orchestra. Her concert dress hung in the back seat.
Sha had played the violin since she was a 6-year-old girl living in China. She practiced endlessly, 60,000 hours by her own estimate, and now was considered world-class.
Sha caught only a glimpse of the car that ran the red light on McMullen Booth Road. She never heard the crash and didn't immediately feel the pain from her crushed left shoulder.
It would be a year and a half before Sha could pick up a violin again.
On Thursday, a Pinellas-Pasco circuit court jury awarded her $5-million in damages for the musical career shattered by that car accident on April 28, 2001. The crash ended her dream of landing a spot in one of the nation's leading orchestras.
About $1,375,000 of the award was for lost future wages. Another $3,456,000 was awarded for past and future pain and suffering. The rest is for medical expenses and past lost wages.
The jury deliberated less than an hour before rendering the verdict against the driver who ran the red light. The driver's insurance company, Liberty Mutual, is on the hook for the award.
Sha, 41, stood outside the courtroom at the end of the weeklong trial and smiled as the six jurors approached her. Some asked for autographs. Sha promised to send them a copy of a CD of her performances, which is sold only in China. Jurors heard a three-minute excerpt from it during the trial.
"They did honor to my music," said Sha, who lives in Brunswick, Maine. "This wasn't about money. It was about my music."
The driver of the other car, Margit Showalter, 63, declined to comment as she left court with her husband, William Showalter, who also was named as a defendant. Mrs. Showalter, of Palm Harbor, admitted running the light and being at fault in the accident.
Defense lawyer Michael Derrick, who asked jurors to award Sha no more than $189,000, could not be reached for comment on whether the verdict will be appealed.
Derrick argued to jurors that the world of orchestra music is highly competitive and that Sha had no guarantee she would ever achieve the success of which she dreamed.
He told jurors Sha could still earn the same $30,000 average annual salary she made for the Florida Orchestra by teaching and periodically performing solos.
Tom Carey, the attorney who represented Sha with co-counsel Jodi Leisure, said he thought the verdict is the biggest ever awarded in Pinellas in a lawsuit involving a car accident.
"In my opinion, she deserves the money," said juror Dave Imler. "She's never going to play the violin like she did before."
Sha's injuries were so severe she wondered if she would ever play again.
The other car was traveling an estimated 45 mph. The collision broke Sha's collarbone, partially tore her rotator cuff, herniated two discs in her neck, tore muscle, and pinched and stretched nerves. Her friend also was severely injured.
Sha played for the Florida Orchestra from 1992 to 2000 before she quit in hopes of landing a job with a major orchestra elsewhere.
She moved to New Jersey in 2000 and then, the week of the crash, returned to Florida for a brief stint as a substitute violinist.
Some doctors warned against having surgery; others said to wait and see how she heals, Carey said. But all agree that the arm and shoulder that support her violin will never have the same mobility, he said.
"Her ability to play in an orchestra in America, or anywhere, is gone," Carey said.
In the months after the crash, Sha found herself with more free time than ever. Every minute of her life had been organized around her music.
"I never had nothing to do," Sha said in an interview. "I don't know how to describe it. It was depressing. I cried. What do I do tonight? I never had that problem. My violin, it was my life."
Slowly, some strength returned to her injured shoulder, enough to begin playing. She began to practice again. Slowly. Painfully.
"Sometimes it hurt so much," Sha said. "I would be so depressed, I didn't want to look at a violin."
Sha still plays. She performs solo three or four times a year, playing for short periods. Sha said she can only practice about 15 minutes a day, far from the six hours or more she used to practiced daily.
In February, she made her Carnegie Hall debut, playing 24 minutes in a performance of the Butterfly Lover's Concerto.
"I couldn't pick up the violin the next day because of the pain," Sha said.
Ling Tung, a renowned conductor who once played with the Philadelphia Orchestra, said he listened to Sha play after the accident. "I was so sad, you know, realizing that she tried to keep up ... but her playing is weakened," he told lawyers in testimony before the trial.
Sha, whose husband, Dean Stein, is also a violinist, is the daughter of a musical family. Her father is a renowned conductor in China. Her mother was an opera singer.
Sha said she will continue to play, ignoring the pain, the numb fingers and the weakness in her arm.
"When I am performing," Sha said, "the pain goes away because I block it out. After, I die."