Melinda Baker spent years caring for others. She helped troubled boys get on track at Ranch Hope in Salem County, N.J.; then, missionary work took her to Malaysia, seeking to guide young women out of the sex industry. While there, she hiked the country’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu.
“Now she’s back home, and she can’t even climb a flight of stairs,” her attorney Brian Fritz said Monday.
Baker, 57, of Mantua, Gloucester County, is recovering from what Superior Court Judge Samuel Ragonese described as “catastrophic and permanent injuries” sustained in January 2018 when her Dodge Neon was struck on the driver’s side by a Ford Focus at Mantua Pike and Parkville Station Road in West Deptford, Gloucester County. A South Jersey volunteer firefighter had run a red light while racing to an emergency.
This month, the Wenonah Fire Company agreed to pay Baker $4.5 million, and former firefighter Richard J. Campbell Jr. agreed to pay her an additional $100,000.
“This settlement is certainly an amount that is necessary to help a woman who is going to face future challenges to get her back to a position that she can get the most out of life,” her lawyer said.
Wenonah Fire Company Chief Tim Nessler; attorney Erin Thompson, who represented the company; and attorney Eric Robinson, who represented Campbell, did not respond to phone messages Monday seeking comment on the settlement.
Baker had recently returned from Malaysia to care for her ailing mother when the collision happened, Fritz said.
Alone in her car, she was trapped and had to be extracted by hydraulic rescue equipment. She suffered 14 fractures, including in her neck, both legs, ribs, both ankles, and a wrist. She now walks with a cane and uses a chairlift and wheelchair at home, Fritz said.
Attorney Kristy McCabe, who also represented Baker, noted that she cannot drive because she can no longer move her neck from side to side. “So she has no freedom. She can’t go anywhere without someone taking her there. For a very independent person who’s used to doing her own thing and traveling the world, it’s really been hard for her to handle that.”
Campbell’s car was equipped with flashing blue lights, but under state law, that did not give him “privileges or exemptions” not granted to other drivers. “Such members displaying emergency warning lights shall drive with due regard for the safety of all persons and shall obey all the traffic laws of this state,” the law says.
Campbell was cited for running a red light and other traffic violations. His permit for his personal vehicle to have the flashing lights had expired, Fritz said. As a result of the accident, Wenonah passed an ordinance that its volunteer firefighters can only use flashing blue lights within its borders, Fritz said.
It’s not known how often civilians are injured in such collisions. Kimberly Quiros, spokesperson for the National Volunteer Fire Council, said the Washington-based advocacy group does not track accidents caused by volunteer firefighters driving private vehicles.