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Elisabeth Ostendorf – a Story of Love, Justice, and Complex Auto Litigation

roadway at sunset with trees

At the end of 2020, after waging a six-year legal battle, Lansing personal injury attorneys, George Sinas and Mike Larkin achieved a monumental victory for our catastrophically injured client, Elisabeth Ostendorf. While we have shared developments in Elisabeth’s case in the past, a recent WLNS 6 feature story spotlighting her legal plight provides another opportunity for us to expand further on this case of complex auto litigation, justice, and the triumph of love. More importantly, the WLNS 6 feature highlights the incredible tenacity of our client, the dedication of the man who loved her, the commitment of our law firm to advocate on behalf of Michigan’s injured, and the ultimate attainment of justice in this case. We feel honored knowing Elisabeth and having had the privilege of working on her behalf, protecting the legal rights that are so important to her future. The following is her story, along with further insight into the complex auto litigation involved in her case.

The Story of Elisabeth Ostendorf

In 2014, German Ph.D. biochemist, Elisabeth Ostendorf’s life was forever changed when she was hit by a Michigan State University vehicle while crossing a pedestrian walk on the university’s campus. She sustained catastrophic injuries leading to extensive care and rehabilitation needs, including a severe traumatic brain injury. To further complicate her already challenging situation, Elisabeth and her then-fiancé, Sebastian Kuhlgert, quickly found themselves amid complex auto litigation, all while they struggled to put their lives back together again.

Ostendorf’s Complex Legal Battle

When our firm was first contacted regarding this case, George and Mike, highly experienced Lansing auto accident attorneys, immediately understood its significance and the skills, acumen, and tenacity required to see it through the lengthy legal ordeal that would likely ensue.

The insurance company of the defendant, Michigan State University (MSU), argued that the plaintiff was not entitled to pursue any tort claim against MSU due to the fact that the plaintiff, an MSU employee, was barred from suing her employer under the exclusive remedy provisions of the Worker’s Compensation Act. However, the Worker’s Compensation Tribunal found that the plaintiff, a foreign citizen performing scientific research at MSU, was ineligible for worker’s compensation benefits under the foreign national exclusion provisions of MCL 418.161(1)(b). MSU also argued that the plaintiff was not entitled to any noneconomic damages because she was more than 50% comparatively negligent and, further, was not entitled to economic damages because the plaintiff’s research employment was scheduled to end, and she had not yet secured any future employment.

The trial court found that the MSU driver was 60% negligent and that the plaintiff was 40% comparatively negligent and, accordingly, entered a judgment in the plaintiff’s favor in the amount of $7,518,783.91, including interest and costs. After the verdict, numerous appeals were filed by MSU and its insurer in the Worker’s Compensation tribunal, the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Michigan Supreme Court. Finally, after nearly six years of complex auto litigation and appellate court litigation, an agreement was reached that the plaintiff would be paid the full amount of the judgment, plus interest. The ultimate amount paid to the plaintiff in November 2020 was $8,274.234.20.

The case involved a very unique issue of law as to whether Elisabeth had a right to pursue a liability claim against Michigan State (University) or whether her rights were to draw Worker's Compensation benefits. You can't do both.

George and Mike skillfully led the charge on Ms. Ostendorf’s behalf, along with the excellent appellate assistance of Joel Finnell.

Despite the setbacks, loopholes, and roadblocks, Elisabeth and Sebastian never wavered – and neither did our commitment to standing up for what was right in this case. Along the way, thirteen different Michigan judges ruled in favor of Elisabeth on the complex worker’s compensation exclusive remedy issue, thereby affirming her right to pursue her liability claim against Michigan State University.

“I’ve been representing seriously injured people for close to 40 years, but I can’t recall a case that was as legally complicated as this one.” George Sinas

George Sinas

Watch: WLNS 6’s Coverage of Elisabeth Ostendorf’s Case – a Two-Part Series

Part 1: Elisabeth Ostendorf’s Story

Part 2: Elisabeth Ostendorf’s Story

Justice, Commitment, and Love

Elisabeth and Sebastian came to the United States from Germany. With no family in the United States, Sebastian was appointed Elisabeth’s guardian shortly following her catastrophic accident and has been by her side ever since. Through all the hospital stays, rehabilitation, and a monumental amount of care that Elisabeth required during her recovery, Sebastian stayed by her side and supported her every step. After several years of care and rehabilitation, the couple began discussing the possibility of marriage. However, yet another legal complication stood in the way. Because Sebastian was Elisabeth’s appointed legal guardian, the couple required court approval in order to marry. That approval was eventually obtained, and in 2018, the two were married, celebrating not only their love but the life they fought so hard to regain for so many years.

Elisabeth’s incredible story doesn’t end in the courtroom. Despite her catastrophic injuries, Elisabeth has defied her odds. In the midst of a legal storm, she not only made incredible progress in her recovery, but she married the man who had been by her side since day one – Sebastian Kuhlgert. In the WLNS 6 interview, George Sinas revealed that, on the last day of the trial, after Sebastian thanked the law firm for all it did for Elisabeth, George looked at Sebastian and stated, “Actually, it’s us who need to thank you – you taught us what love was!”

Our Commitment to Justice for Michigan’s Injured

Complex auto litigation such as the case of Elisabeth Ostendorf requires an exceptional commitment of time, energy, and resources to obtain the results needed for injured people to have access to the best recovery possible. This case exemplifies the length our attorneys will go to defend the rights of Michigan’s injured and their dedication to preserving the American civil justice system. While not every Michigan auto accident law firm is willing to go to these lengths, we consider it an honor to do so on behalf of such exceptional clients as Elisabeth and Sebastian.