On September 13, 1983, while living in southern California, welder Reggie Kelly hopped on his motorcycle to go cash his paycheck over a lunch break. Stopped at an intersection, he waited for a green light and then headed forward, but an oncoming car took a left turn across the intersection and hit Reggie directly. His leg was pinched between the car’s bumper and his Harley’s engine casing, mangling the limb beyond repair. The hit sent Reggie flying, and he hit a light pole and fell to the curb, remaining conscious all the while. “There is no describing the pain,” Reggie says.
He remembers the ambulance ride to the Fountain Valley, Calif. trauma center, and being laid on a gurney with doctors and nurses looking down on him. They had to catheterize him, and he recalls seeing blood in the tube right before passing out.
The doctors had to amputate Reggie’s left leg below the knee. His left arm was crushed, especially the elbow joint. His spleen was ruptured and had to be removed. All of his ribs were broken. His pelvis had been so thoroughly fractured, the doctors said it had been “eggshelled.” Reggie needed 28 units of blood while in intensive care, and back then, blood was not routinely tested. As a result, Reggie contracted hepatitis C through one of his many transfusions.
Reggie’s elbow injury left him with major nerve damage and muscle atrophy in his arm. (The elbow eventually calcified, and permanently stuck in a 90 degree position.) Meanwhile, he was fitted with a prosthetic leg and learned how to walk on it. He was on a cocktail of meds aimed at managing his pain without addicting him to the painkillers. “I was in such a state,” Reggie recalls.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, 1983, Reggie returned home to Alaska, just before his 28th birthday. “I came as close as I could to dying without it actually happening to me. I was very fortunate,” he says.
Reggie has had surgeries to his back and neck since then. “I hurt every day when I get up,” he says. “To go through those kinds of injuries, they don’t ever really heal.” His accident happened right before his 28th birthday. He is 56 years old now. He has not worked since the accident. As a self-described “metal-banger,” he simply cannot stand up and work like he used to. His bones will not let him.
After the accident, Reggie sued the woman that hit him, and was offered a lump sum or an annuity. His lawyers suggested Reggie take the annuity because he would get more out of it as time went by. Reggie talked it over with his parents, who agreed with the lawyers.
“It just seemed to be a good way to go,” Reggie says of his structured settlement annuity. “I’m sure that’s why most people who get these things do it. It’s proven that a lot of people get a chunk of money and don’t know what to do with it, and the next thing you know, it’s gone.”
Reggie’s case settled in 1985, for a $1.4 million annuity that paid him $2,350 a month to start. Every year, there was a 3% compounded increase. Today, his monthly payments are $5,220.029.
Every five years, his annuity would pay out an additional sizeable “balloon payment;” these get bigger over time. He is supposed to get another balloon payment in August 2013 for $430,000. One in 2018 is set for $600,000. A final one is set for 2023 for $830,000, just before he turns 68.
Then, Reggie got his letter telling him the ELNY liquidation would cut his payments by 51%. He would lose nearly a million dollars just on his balloon payments, in addition to his monthly payments. He calls the payment haircut “getting the hammer.”
“You’re not talking a couple of hundred bucks,” Reggie says. “You’re not talking a couple of thousand bucks. You’re not even talking a couple of hundred thousand bucks. In my case, alone, depending on how long I live, you’re talking an easy $1.5 million. They’re knocking me down to $2,500-$2,600 a month. It’s hard to live in Alaska on that kind of money. It’s hard to live anywhere on that, these days. Right now I’m getting $60 grand a year. To me, that’s chump change. Yeah I get these balloon payments, but if I could go back to that day in September 1983, and have five minutes to change things around, I’d be glad to be working now as opposed to what I’ve got going now. I’d gladly give it up.”
Reggie still thinks the concept of structured settlement annuities is good because it helps those who are injured, but are bad with money. But he has big problems with how ELNY was handled. And he questions how the liquidation is being done in the name of consumer protection when some 1,500 of the payees who have already been hardest hit are being hit once again.
“It makes me hotter than hell when I think about it,” Reggie says from his home in Alaska, while “Sweet Home Alabama” plays in the background. “Why do these guys get immunity? That’s a bunch of BS. Nobody takes responsibility for their own actions. When you do something wrong that’s your fault, own up to it. Don’t try to put the smoke on somebody else.”
When asked what he would do if he ever met those in the New York Liquidation Bureau who let ELNY get where it is today, Reggie holds back. “I probably shouldn’t tell you what I’d like to do,” he says. “In all honesty, I’d probably end up in jail.”