More than two years ago, a jury awarded Wonder Lake resident Rich Jankowski $3.3 million in a discrimination lawsuit against dairy giant Dean Foods.
He hasn’t seen any money so far, and neither Jankowski nor his lawyer is optimistic that will change in the near future.
“They lost on all counts we brought up against them,” Jankowski said. “I haven’t seen a dime. The money award isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”
A month after Jankowski won his lawsuit in October 2019, which allegedly the company discriminated against him following an injury on the job, Dean Foods filed for bankruptcy and Dean Foods representatives have said no insurance policy exists that could cover his payout.
If this was a car crash, Jankowski told Federal Judge Iain Johnston during a recent status hearing in the case, he would be on the hook personally if he didn’t have insurance.
“That’s a good point,” Johnston responded. “[But] once Dean Foods goes into bankruptcy proceedings, you as a creditor go into a pool with other creditors and wherever you land in line is where you end up.”
Multiple attempts by the Northwest Herald to reach Dean Foods and the attorneys who represented them in the Jankowski lawsuit were unsuccessful as of Thursday.
Jankowski said he “went through hell, begged, borrowed and stole” to take them to court – and win – and now, Jankowski said he is hundreds of thousands in debt from the fight with Dean Foods and can barely afford food for himself and his wife, Patty.
Jankowski, who worked at a company location in Huntley, alleged in his federal civil complaint, filed in 2016, that he was first hurt on the job in August 2003, injuring his neck and upper back while lifting and throwing heavy skids. He returned to work, and then after pushing a very heavy cart loaded up a ramp, he experienced a severe recurrence of neck pain.
He underwent cervical spine fusion surgery in December 2005 and the following May, returned to full work duties, according to an amended complaint.
Jankowski was hurt again in October 2009, according to the complaint. The most serious of the injuries, according to the lawsuit, were to the left side of his neck and left shoulder.
While awaiting a December 2009 doctor’s appointment and despite a doctor’s note provided to Dean Foods saying he should not push or pull loaded carts, Jankowski alleged in his complaint he was told to push the carts or go home without pay.
Dean Foods directed Jankowski to see one of his doctors, which he did, according to the complaint and court filings by Dean Foods. The doctor said Jankowski was not to lift more than 25 pounds and not to push or pull more than 50 pounds. He also was prescribed various pain medications.
In fall 2011, Dean Food’s denied Jankowski’s workers’ compensation claim for the 2009 injury and stopped paying benefits under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, according to Jankowski’s complaint and filings by Dean Foods.
Jankowski paid out of pocket for COBRA insurance in order to get a second surgery on his neck and still is paying off a bill for physical therapy that followed the procedure, he said.
Following the surgery, he sought to return to work under the doctor-prescribed conditions, but Jankowski alleged in the complaint that Dean Foods denied the request.
Dean Foods’ 2019 bankruptcy still is working its way through the courts, said attorney Tim Coffey, who has represented Jankowski since 2016.
Affiliates and creditors who could claim assets got first dibs, and Coffey said he did not expect there to be much leftover for unsecured creditors such as Jankowski.
“Mr. Jankowski is just one more unsecured creditor in the bankruptcy line,” Coffey said.
Any hope for Jankowski comes from the company’s possible insurance policies, which the company has said don’t cover Jankowski’s claim, he said.
Jankowski and his attorneys have sought through the discrimination lawsuit to learn what policies existed – a “very windy and unrewarding road,” Coffey said, that has led him to Bermuda, among other places where a subsidiary insurance company is located.
During a status hearing in federal court last week on June 3, Attorney Charles Peters, who said he is not representing Dean Foods but was in court to provide an update for the company, said the bankruptcy proceedings have set “limits on the discovery” possible .
As Jankowski awaits resolution, he and his wife are living in Wonder Lake, collecting disability checks and facing mounting debt on credit cards and utility bills, he said.
The couple has had one break: Their home in Wonder Lake was inherited from Rich Jankowski’s father-in-law, who put it in a family trust, so he said they do not have to pay rent or mortgage.
“We’re grateful to have a roof over our heads,” Jankowski said, adding that they’d filed for bankruptcy once, in 2005, and said they are “on the brink” of doing so now.
Patty Jankowski works for Woodstock School District 200 as a teacher’s assistant, helping students with learning disabilities, and the situation has taken its toll on her as well, she said.
“I can’t even put it into words,” Patty Jankowski said. “It’s like the rug was pulled out from underneath us, nothing worked out the way it was supposed to. He won legally, and then he lost. I’m just not making enough money to carry both of us.”
While the couple does not starve, Rich Jankowski said, every purchase requires consideration and he tries to avoid using credit cards.
The couple has three adult children – two sons, Jason and Richard, who live in the Chicago area, and a daughter, Melissa, who lives in Arizona – and six grandchildren, and the Jankowskis said the extended family provides emotional support. The couple said they don’t feel they can ask for monetary support as their children have families of their own.
“We had to watch our kids get married and not be able to contribute anything to them,” Patty Jankowski said. “That makes us feel terrible.”
Most nights, Rich Jankowski said he’s up all hours, walking their dog or “cleaning around the house” trying to keep his mind occupied.
“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Rich Jankowski said, “and I am still worse off now than before I sued these people.”