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October 26, 2002 - Jury awards $15.6 million to estates of two crash victims

Joy Meden clutched her baby boy, Bodhi, to her chest yesterday as she spoke of a bittersweet $15.6 million verdict for the estates of her mother and a man, both killed by an accused drunk driver. A Cuyahoga County jury held Scott Leiendecker, 49, of Cleveland, responsible for the May 25, 2001, deaths of Janet Meden and Craig Austin.

Authorities say Leiendecker's blood-alcohol level was 2 times the level at which a driver would be presumed impaired when he drove a 1990 Mazda through a stop sign at Music Street and Ohio 306 in Geauga County. His car hit a 1991 Oldsmobile driven by Austin, 43, of Wickliffe. Janet Meden, 54, of Mentor, was in Austin's car.

A passenger in Leiendecker's car, Salvatore Manzo, 47, of Garfield Heights, also died. Geauga County prosecutors charged Leiendecker with multiple counts of aggravated vehicular homicide. His trial has been pushed back several times because he has terminal liver disease. He is in hospice care and didn't appear for the four-day civil trial before Common Pleas Judge Nancy McDonnell. Joy Meden said it was time Leiendecker began to answer for his actions. "The verdict sends a message that he is responsible," she said. "It's very hard dealing with the fact that he hasn't been tried criminally. . . . This verdict brings some closure."

Austin and Janet Meden were co-workers at OSI Sealants, Inc., in Mentor. They had traveled to Geauga County to look at a car Janet Meden wanted to buy, said Thomas Michals, a lawyer for Austin's estate. The estate lawyers sued OSI's insurance carriers under the controversial Scott-Pontzer theory, which allows for lawsuits against an employer's insurance even if the accident occurred off-duty and in a personal car.

Jonathan Philipp, a lawyer for one of the insurers, said the companies would appeal. Jurors awarded compensatory damages against the insurance companies and Leiendecker of $3.6 million for Austin's estate and $2 million for Janet Meden's estate. The jury also awarded each estate $5 million in punitive damages solely against Leiendecker.

Janet Meden had two sons and a daughter. Joy Meden found out she was pregnant with Bodhi three days after Janet Meden died. Bodhi would have been Janet Meden's first grandchild.

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