Three years ago, a bicycle accident on a Seattle bridge turned physically strong and active attorney Mickey Gendler into a quadriplegic. He was recently awarded $8 million from the state, the highest payout to an individual since 2003.

Share story

The automatic door wouldn’t budge.

Mickey Gendler pressed the button from his wheelchair. The door should swing from his kitchen to the backyard with just a click. He tried again, but his left hand spasmed, then his whole arm. Shaking is part of living with his spinal-cord injury. But it is not the worst part, he said.

That would be not walking, he said. Or not being able to use his hands to eat. Or clip his nails, put on clothes, urinate without a catheter or make love.

When you can’t carry out life’s most basic functions, he said, getting an $8 million payout from the government puts a different spin on the value of money.

Gendler, 58, once a high-profile environmental attorney in Seattle, talked Tuesday at his Phinney Ridge home about his recent settlement from the state Department of Transportation.

He said the money would help with exorbitant medical expenses after a bike crash on the Montlake Bridge left him a quadriplegic.

“But I’d trade it all to get my life back,” he said, choking back tears.

The payout is the highest by state government since 2003, according to the state Office of Financial Management. And it comes almost three years to the day after the accident on Oct. 28, 2007.

He and a friend were riding across the bridge toward the Washington Park Arboretum when Gendler’s tire suddenly lodged in an inch-wide gap between sections of metal grating.

The force threw him over the handlebars, crushing his upper vertebrae. Gendler had suffered an “incomplete” spinal-cord injury, which meant he would have some motor function.

Gendler, a lifelong cyclist, sued. As the case made its way through the court system, the state filled the gap on the bridge with epoxy. A 1999 seismic retrofit of the bridge had created the gap, said John Milton, risk-management director for the state DOT.

Last week, a judgment for the $8 million was filed in Thurston County Superior Court. In the settlement, neither the state nor Gendler admitted liability.

The $8 million figure was based on estimates of Gendler’s health-care costs, and his reduced earning power as an attorney, according to the state and Gendler’s attorney, Keith Kessler.

“This was a catastrophic event to a very strong individual. This was the right thing to do, for both Mr. Gendler and the taxpayer,” Milton said.

Since the accident, the home that Gendler and his wife, Nan, have shared for 25 years has been retrofitted to accommodate Gendler and his battery-powered wheelchair.

A first-floor bathroom was remodeled to fit a wheelchair-accessible shower. His hospital bed takes up much of the living room.

He spends most days at home, he said, because it’s simply too difficult to be out for long. He has a caregiver who comes over from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and another one who stays until 10:30 p.m.

They help him change his catheters, make sure he’s fed and hydrated — he has enough muscle control to suck water from a tube — and keep their arms close around him as he lifts his 6-foot-4-inch, 213-pound frame out of his wheelchair and onto a walker.

He’s worked nonstop with therapists, and can now take a few steps on his own. Doctors don’t talk about his future in absolutes. So why should he?

Monday, Gendler gave up on the automatic door and asked for help to push it open manually.

He passed a mud room where his premium bikes were once stored.

A Serotta titanium and an Erikson, he said with a smile. Think Maserati and a BMW SUV, he said. In that order.

Since the crash, he’s ridden about five or six times on a tandem bike, which someone else can steer. He even went 15 miles on Sammamish Park Trail a year ago.

For a man who once crossed European mountainsides, it wasn’t exactly thrilling, he said.

But it was a start. He may try it again. He keeps a bike helmet on a ceiling hook nearby. Just in case.

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom and news researcher David Turim contributed to this report. Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com.