Several times in early February 2009, Jennifer Boynton would leave her Northglenn apartment with the intention of getting in her car and leaving. It was only once she was staring at her empty parking space that she remembered her car had been totaled the morning of February 2, when a Northglenn police officer ran into her. Her car's fate clearly hadn't registered with her and she had no way of seeing the downward trajectory her life would take following the accident.
Nearly three years later, she finally received a settlement this week from the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency (CIRSA), a self-insured pool made up of over 230 Colorado municipalities, one of which is Northglenn. The $27,000 she received will cover medical bills totaling around $18,000 and other expenses she believes she wouldn't have incurred had she not been hit by the police officer, including a loan and an eviction.
Her experience went far past the inconvenience of filling out paperwork, looking for a new car and visiting the doctor for check-ups. Boynton lost her job, car, apartment, savings, pet bird, most of her possessions, a good portion of her sanity and any sense of normalcy. Unaware of how to handle the situation, she felt overmatched by her circumstances and believes others could easily suffer a similar fate.
She worried about when her next meal would come and where it would come from. She feared homelessness and perpetual unemployment and found out just how few true friends she had. All the while, she says she was alternately harassed and ignored by Diane Hall, the claim representative for CIRSA who handled Boynton's claim. Hall says she is unable to comment for this story.
"I can't blame everything that goes on in my life on this accident, and I haven't," Boynton maintains. "But I can guarantee that the chain of events that happened afterward were from that accident."
What hurt Boynton the most was relying on others. She takes a lot of pride in handling terrible situations with just her will, so it crushed her core to lean on friends and ask local churches to pass the plate so she could eat.
"I guess just the snowball effect of all the events that happened afterward threw me into a depressed state," she says. "It's hard to explain unless you lived the whole story."
On February 1, 2009, Boynton, who's 41, went to a Super Bowl party at a friend's house and had enough drinks that she decided she shouldn't drive home. Her reward for doing the right thing was a police car colliding with her Pontiac Sunfire as she drove North on Huron Street just after 7 a.m. the next morning.
According to the accident report, Officer Ernie Romero was on his way to serve as a School Resource Officer at Northglenn High School. He was stopped at a green light in the south-bound lane on Huron Street, waiting for a north-bound car to turn right onto West 100th Place so that he could turn left on to the same street. After the car remained stopped on Huron for several moments Romero began to turn left once he thought traffic had cleared and smashed into the front, left portion of Boynton's car, spinning it into a mini-van that was waiting at a red light to head west on 100th Place.
Boynton's air bag deployed and the force of the collision was enough to knock the ramming bumper off the police car. Boynton sat still in her car with a bloody nose, not yet sure how badly she was hurt.
Afterward, Boynton says she was briefly examined by personnel in an ambulance at the scene, but was just feeling general soreness at that time, so a police officer gave her a ride home. Once she got home, she started feeling more pain and asked a friend to take her to the hospital.
Boynton went to the North Suburban Medical Center, where a medical report shows she underwent three X-ray exams and a CT scan. She was diagnosed with a cervical strain and a single contusion to her left shoulder. Her injuries seemed minor enough, so she was given a neck brace, pain medication, a sedative and a list of doctors to follow up with, and then sent home. Romero was cited with careless driving.
The doctors who examined her told her not to work for two days, after which she started down the unexpectedly tough path to putting the accident behind her. She was injured, without a car, and suddenly had several lawyers, doctors and an insurance agent to communicate with.
Page down to continue reading Jennifer Boynton's story. A friend who had recently been through an accident convinced Boynton she should hire a lawyer to handle her claim. She did so two days later, but dropped out representation after being treated more like a number than a person, she says. Then, two weeks later, she secured the services of attorney Dianne Sawaya.
A letter sent from Hall to Boynton on February 25, 2009 indicates Hall's first attempt to contact Boynton was two days after the accident. Boynton says she called Hall within the first three days after the accident and Hall convinced Boynton to deal with her directly, rather than letting Boynton's insurance agent communicate with CIRSA. In a trusting moment, Boynton agreed. She didn't think it would be a big deal and certainly didn't think she would be haggling for nearly three years.
After all, the cop hit her. He received the ticket. Boynton assumed an insurance provider that represents state agencies would have the means to make her life normal again. While not unusual for someone in Boynton's position to deal directly with CIRSA, she could have had her insurance company handle the negotiating for her. She wishes she had.
Boynton says calls from Hall became increasingly harassing and mean. Since CIRSA is a self-pooled risk assessment provider it is not regulated the way other insurance companies are by the Department of Insurance, a branch of the State's Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA). The Department of Insurance only has the authority to make sure CIRSA has enough money to pay its claims. CIRSA is owned by its members so those members oversee operations, create bylaws and elect members of the board of directors and the executive director, rather than having DORA oversee such procedures.
While Boynton believes CIRSA could have paid for her rental car for longer than the two days it did, that Hall was unnecessarily rude and that she took excessively long amounts of time to return phone calls or letters, she had no recourse. She filed a complaint about Hall with DORA, but given CIRSA's unique position, no punishment could be levied.
"When you go through something like that, the last thing you need is someone purposely stressing you out," Boynton says. "I felt like nobody is doing anything."
At the time of the accident, Boynton was working as a customer service representative in the call center for Echostar Communications. She was out of sick days and vacation time, and was stuck working the same hours as her doctors, lawyers and Hall. Her bosses very closely monitored her to make sure she was at her desk and on the phone. She had a half hour lunch and a fifteen minute break to try to put her life back together.
Boynton says her breaks frequently consisted of a confrontational conversation with Hall or a hurried exchange with her lawyer. She would then return to her desk, late and upset. She was trying to figure out what papers to send where, schedule appointments with a chiropractor and a general practice physician and convey information between her lawyers and CIRSA. Important conversations about medical bills or compensation for her car were often cut off halfway through.
But too many of these conversations didn't end soon enough. She was fired in March, 2009 for repeatedly returning late from breaks. Jobless and without a car, transportation became a burden. She was riding the bus or bumming rides from her roommate to get to doctors appointments and meet her lawyers. Strapped for cash, Boynton found herself filling out paperwork that required such details as her grandmother's maiden name just to get free bus tokens.
During the weeks immediately following the accident, friend, roommate and co-worker at Echostar Janie Eichorn says Boynton was constantly on the phone with Hall, and one conversation made Boynton so upset that she started crying and dropped the phone. Eichorn says she picked up the phone, asked what the problem was and explained Boynton was too emotional to talk at the moment.
"They did not care at all," Eichorn says of CIRSA. "Her whole life was turned upside down over it. She was crying to them on the phone. She tried every angle -- being really sweet, pushing back, that kind of stuff, and they just weren't working with her."
Page down to continue reading Jennifer Boynton's story. The first part of moving on to some sort of normal life for Boynton was dealing with her totaled car. Boynton still owed over $8,800 on a loan from Denver Community Federal Credit Union she took out to buy the car. A letter from Hall indicates CIRSA offered $5,784.38 based on the actual cash value of the car in exchange for a clear title.
Boynton signed over her title to Hall and put the money she received from CIRSA toward paying off her loan. Luckily for Boynton, she had GAP insurance, which pays the difference between the actual cash value of a car and the remaining amount owed on a loan or lease in the event of a total loss, like Boynton's. She canceled her insurance after this matter was settled, not having a car to insure.
Richard Laugesen, attorney and adjunct professor of insurance law at the University of Denver, notes that CIRSA is not responsible for compensating Boynton beyond the value of the vehicle, regardless of the fact that Boynton had to use the money given to her by CIRSA to pay toward her loan, rather than buying a replacement vehicle.
"The fact that the person has a loan toward the vehicle is a matter of the contract they entered," he says. "That is probably not a consequential damage for the at-fault party."
If not satisfying, her car and the financial problems surrounding it were behind her. But she was having plenty of other problems. Most notably, she was running out of money. Boynton moved into a new apartment in Northglenn shortly after the accident thinking she could rely on unemployment money to at least pay rent.
But she says about $1,100 of unemployment money she was supposed to receive vanished and none of the supervisors at the unemployment office could explain it to her. With no income, her fear of getting evicted and becoming homeless consumed her.
She consulted Sawaya, her attorney at the time, for advice. Her words were less than comforting.
"She told me, as she was giggling, 'Why don't I just sleep in my car?' and then proceeded to tell me, 'Oh, that's right, you don't have a car,'" says Boynton. "That really hurt my feelings."
Sawaya declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the attorney-client privilege.
In the way of tangible assistance, Boynton says Sawaya told her she could take out a loan to pay rent. The catch? 100 percent interest. Believing her options were to either take the outlandish loan or live out of a shopping cart on Park Avenue West, she chose the loan. Once in April and once in May 2009, she took a loan for $1,500 from America Legal Funding. Boynton says her lawyer is still negotiating how much of the loan she will pay.
Borrowing in a time of desperation only bought Boynton a couple of months. In the summer of 2009 her quick fall from independent and self-assured to in-debt, unemployed and without a home was complete. Unable to pay rent, she was evicted and forced to move in with a friend.
This is when her circumstance really started eating at her pride. Boynton has one living relative, a grandmother in Iowa who lives in a nursing home, and the last thing she wanted to do was ask friends to take her in. But she swallowed hard and was met with rather unsympathetic answers.
"I thought about staying at different friends' houses and no one would take me," says Boynton. "I actually had people turn me down. I was going to be on the streets and I had people say, 'No, you can't stay here,' like I was some sort of degenerate bum."
Boynton found one compassionate friend to stay with for a few weeks before moving into Les's Arvada apartment. The two were dating at the time, so Boynton told herself she was moving in with him for the sake of the relationship, but deep down she knew it was more out of necessity.
Boynton says she was unemployed for about a year -- a torturous time of legal negotiations, relying on others and applying for bad jobs in a bad economy.
Up to a year after the accident, she was still regularly feeling its effects. She still has intermittent pain in her left shoulder, which sometimes cracks loudly as she moves it. She spent many nights after the accident alternately lying on her bed and the floor because staying in either one too long would flare up her back pain. When she did get to sleep she would have nightmares two or three times a week, which lasted a little over a year after the accident.
Initially, she had a lot of nightmares about getting in car accidents or simply standing in the middle of the road and getting run over by a car. As time passed the nightmares changed to visions of being homeless or mugged.
Medical reports she sent to CIRSA show she suffered from changes in vision and appetite, trouble walking, tremors, shakiness, dizziness, vomiting, flashbacks and distraction. The few times she drove left her stressed and fearing another collision.
Sometimes Boynton would worry herself into a panic attack. While thinking of one of her many problems her heart would pump like a piston until it caused her pain.
Eichorn and Les say Boynton began drinking heavily in the aftermath of the accident.
"It seemed like every time I went to see her or was with her there was always a bottle of Canadian Mist," says Les. "She wasn't buying the little bottle, she was always getting the big gallon jugs and going through a good portion of it in a night. In a week she would buy two of those, maybe three. It depends on how depressed she was."
In September 2009, Diane Sawaya's law firm decided not to pursue Boynton's claim. It would be one of many. Due to the contentious interaction with Hall and Boynton's feeling that she was ill-equipped to negotiate with Hall, Boynton sought another lawyer. Boynton said 32 different lawyers declined to pursue her claim before she secured the attorney currently working for her.
Boynton claims lawyer after lawyer told her she wasn't hurt enough and that pursuing the claim wouldn't be worth their time. That was tough to hear for someone still in pain -- someone with around $18,000 in medical bills and ambulance fees.
After not working for about a year Boynton finally landed a job at Rite-Aid, a small step towards self-reliance.
When Les first met Boynton in 2000 he found her to be fun, strong-willed and quick to hand out advice. Her self-esteem shot through the roof, he said. But two years of pain, instability, loss and numerous interactions with lawyers, doctors and insurance agents had worn her into a different person. Les says she became clingy, emotional, angry and weak.
"To me she still seemed like the same kind-hearted person inside, but you could tell that something was eating her alive," says Les.
Boynton can't pin-point her lowest moment since the accident. She remembers getting in a fight with Les and then making up, not because she was sorry, but because she knew she needed his roof over her head.
"I saw her go from being a vibrant, out-going, independent person to depending on other people and being totally depressed and crying," Eichorn says.
Boynton still appears stressed when she talks about the accident and the aftermath. She holds back tears and fidgets while chronicling the past two-plus years of her life.
"I even thought about staying here to sleep some nights," she says while standing in the convenience store she has managed since August 2010.
Boynton is starting to make a life she doesn't hate. Last summer, she moved out of Les's apartment and into a nice basement apartment in Aurora. Her circumstances after the accident were a large contributing factor to their breakup.
Boynton likes having her own place and she's grateful, if not happy, to be making twenty cents an hour above minimum wage. She says her lawyer is still calculating how much she will receive after she pays all her debts, but all she really wants is a car, and not nearly as nice as the one Romero totaled. She's not happy that this process has essentially stolen three years of her life.
"At one point I thought this ruined my life," says Boynton. "But I think it changed my life. Maybe the lesson learned was that it's not wrong to get help from people."
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While Boynton is making less money, has less in the bank and has fewer possessions than she did before the accident, she is building those back up. Some damage is permanent. She has an eviction on her record, she lost several friends and rather than furthering her career in the past three years she's gone backward.
Beyond wishing the police car had never hit her, Boynton wishes she would have let her insurance company or lawyer handle all communication with Hall, which caused her much stress.
"I would hate for someone else to go through what I've gone through," Boynton says. "It's been awful. I've been mad. I've been hurt and upset. I've been trying to be happy again. I just want to be back where I was that day and I want people to know what to do if they get in this same situation because I think that if you know what to do, just being educated about the whole thing would be a lot less painful."
More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Johnny Hockaday: Vehicular homicide charge in DUI-Wax Trax crash that killed Roland Stith."