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Living Inspired

Andy Steiner

William Michell Magazine
October 2005

The first time Bill Sieben ’77 met Kimberly Middendorf ’02, things didn’t look good.  It was the summer of 1995, and Middendorf, a senior at North Dakota State University in Fargo, had just been severely injured while working on a road construction crew. After receiving a call from Middendorf’s grandmother, Sieben went to meet the family in the intensive care unit at Hennepin County Medical Center.

“She was hurt so badly; the odds were against her surviving,” Sieben says now. “When I got there she was in and out of consciousness. Her family was in shock. The doctors honestly didn’t know if they could save her.”  After that first meeting, Sieben, a personal injury attorney and partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, agreed to represent the family. As Middendorf fought for her life, Sieben set out to make a case against the manufacturer of the equipment she was operating when she was injured.  As the length of Middendorf’s recovery—and the case—stretched to months and then years, the attorney and client forged a unique relationship, one based on mutual commitment and respect. In 1998, Sieben settled Middendorf’s case for $4.5 million, and in 2002 Middendorf graduated magna cum laude from William Mitchell College of Law.

This year, Sieben and his wife, Joyce, establishedthe Kimberly Middendorf Courage Scholarship, a $50,000 endowed fund earmarked to financially assist William Mitchell students who are physically challenged. The Siebens say they created the scholarship to honor Middendorf’s accomplishments and to inspire other students to follow her example. The settlement amount is one of the biggest of Sieben’s career, but he insists that the impact Middendorf has made on his life is far bigger.  “After six months in the hospital, it was clear that they had saved Kim’s life,” Sieben says. “She was going to survive, but she was still going to have many additional surgeries and treatments for the rest of her life. From early on, Kim had focused on getting well and finishing her college degree. She did that, even though she was still in such rough shape. I was inspired by her commitment, and from the beginning I committed myself to doing what I could to help her reach her goals.”

In the Blink of an eye even though she’s told the story of her accident hundreds of times, Middendorf says she’s still surprised when she realizes that her life changed forever in just a matter of seconds.  “It all happened so fast,” she says. “It’s hard to explain, but sometimes it feels like it was over before it began.”  It was the summer before her senior year in college, and Middendorf, the oldest of six children, had landed a prime summer job working on a road construction crew packing gravel with a gigantic selfpropelled roller. The resourceful 22-year-old was a tractor-driving farm girl, confident around big machines and eager for a steady job with good pay.  “It was way more money than I could make waiting tables,” she says. “I really wanted to earn the cash for college.”  Then one day early in the summer, Middendorf was working on a steep shoulder when her machine started to slide into the ditch. She tried jumping off to the road but instead fell into the path of the enormous piece of equipment. It rolled over on her, crushing her pelvis and severely injuring several internal organs.  “When I jumped and didn’t make it to the road, I thought, ‘I am so dead,’” Middendorf recalls, shaking her head. “Of all the ways I thought I might die, this wasn’t it. But then after the thing rolled over me and I still was conscious, I quickly realized, ‘I’m not dead.’ I wiggled my toes, and I thought, ‘My legs must be working. Maybe they’re just broken.’ It didn’t occur to me that I’d actually broken my pelvis.”  As luck would have it, the crew’s foreman was a former EMT, and he monitored Middendorf’s vital signs until help arrived. She was rushed to Granite Falls Hospital and then airlifted to Hennepin County Medical Center, which became her home for the next six months as she fought for her life and then began the slow road to recovery.

Middendorf’s injuries were extensive. In the 10 years since the accident, she’s had more than 50 emergency and reconstructive surgeries. During the accident, she suffered numerous internal injuries. Her stomach was dislocated from her esophagus and one of her kidneys was severed. She’s now paraplegic and uses a wheelchair.  “At the beginning I had no idea about the level of my injuries,” Middendorf says. “The doctors didn’t even know. It was overwhelming, to say the least.  But as soon as I realized I wasn’t going to die from this, I figured I was going to fight to have the best life could.”

Making the Case

At the beginning, Middendorf’s accident looked like it was a straightforward on-the-job injury that would be covered by workers’ compensation. But Sieben says that all it took was a bit of investigation to uncover a clear-cut case of negligence on the part of the roller manufacturer.  “The principle of this case is the same measure I use to judge all of the cases I take on,” he says. “I believe that one injury is too many if it easily could have been prevented. Kim’s injury could’ve easily been prevented.”

Immediately after his first bedside meeting with Middendorf and her family, Sieben drove to the scene of the accident in Yellow Medicine County. “It was a three-hour drive,” he recalls, “but I felt that I needed to go to the scene myself right away, to get a look at the place where it happened. Then I drove to where the machine was located and took a look at it, too. That’s where I got the idea that this gigantic piece of machinery should’ve had a rollover protective structure.”  The lack of safety equipment turned out to be the linchpin of Sieben’s case. Parties in Middendorf’s product liability action included her employer, the owner of the equipment, and the equipment’s distributor and manufacturer. After a years-long court battle, the settlement came in an 11th-hour deal. The record-setting settlement sent a clear signal to employers and manufacturers, Sieben says, and for him, that is the most important point. “The defendant easily could’ve prevented this injury from occurring,” he says. “Why didn’t they? Hopefully nothing like this will ever happen again in the future.”

Life Goes On
It was a long process, but Middendorf was eventually able to leave the hospital and head back to the real world. Even during her darkest days she says she never put her goal of graduating from college far behind her. “I remember she was in the hospital and still pretty sick, and she was already talking about how she was going to finish college,” Sieben says. “She was determined.”  That determination paid off when Middendorf received her college degree just a couple of years later.  That goal achieved, for a time Middendorf struggled to imagine what the rest of her future would look like.  “I went through a number of years feeling bitter and angry, thinking, ‘What’s the point of anything?’”  Middendorf says. “After the settlement, thanks to Bill, I had enough money to be comfortable for the rest of my life. I was like, ‘What’s the point of working?  I might as well just hang around all day.’” But Middendorf isn’t the type of person who’s well suited to just hanging around. A political science major in college, she’d always dreamed of one day becoming a lawyer. So by 1999, she’d decided to go to law school. The accident, she’d come to believe, was a detour, but her life’s path was going to remain the same.  “People ask me, ‘Did Bill inspire you to go to law school?’” Middendorf says. “I always wanted to go, but he kept me on the path, kept encouraging me to do it even after the accident.”  Though Middendorf was accepted at a number of law schools, she says she’s glad she chose William Mitchell. She enjoyed her professors and felt challenged by the curriculum. She especially appreciated having the opportunity to hone her real-world trial skills, something that she hopes will come in handy in the future.  While in law school, Middendorf discovered that arguing cases from a wheelchair “is definitely a pain in the neck, but at Mitchell I also learned that there are advantages as well. It’s definitely an attention getter. I had a professor there who said, ‘See it as an opportunity to really look a jury in the eye, to get closer to them, like you’re having a casual conversation.’  That’s how I’ve viewed it ever since.”  After graduating from William Mitchell, Middendorf landed her first legal job, working in Anoka County as a clerk for 10th District Court Judge Stephen Askew. She’s not sure what she wants to do when her time with Judge Askew is up, though she says she’s considering juvenile defense or perhaps working in a public defender’s office.  “Even though Kim doesn’t have to work, she’s going to,” Sieben says. “She wants to work in a position that involves causes she believes in, causes that inspire her. That’s just the kind of person she is.”

“I’m interested in so many things,” Middendorf adds. “I want to figure out how I can use the skills I’ve been given, how I can make the best use of them.”  Sometimes she thinks about opening her own practice and eventually running for public office. “I’m not sure what I’ll do, but for me that’s an exciting feeling.”  The way Middendorf sees it, a world of opportunities awaits her. She can’t wait to see what happens next.  Creating a Scholarship for a number of years, the Siebens, who have been strong philanthropic supporters of the law school, had been considering creating a scholarship at William Mitchell. Joyce Sieben was the first to suggest the idea of a scholarship for physically disabled scholars.  “Joyce suggested that we should help the type of people that we’ve spent our lives helping, people who’ve faced challenges from injuries and accidents,” Sieben explains. “She thought it would be a good idea to name it after Kim.”

Before they approached the school with their offer, the Siebens ran the idea by Middendorf. “He asked if I would mind,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Of course not.’  I thought it was incredible. I almost started to cry.”  Sieben says he hopes that the scholarship will provide other promising students like Middendorf with an opportunity to complete their legal education despite any barriers that stand in front of them. He believes that William Mitchell has been effective at providing support for students with challenges, and he hopes others will follow Middendorf’s example.  “Way back at our first meeting I remember just hoping that Kim would live,” Sieben says. “But within the first several weeks it became clear to me that she would make it out alive, that she had a determination that was going to lead her to success, whether that meant law school or something else. I knew that she was going to get past what happened to her in that accident. I knew that she was going to be successful in life.”

Middendorf doesn’t think of herself as a hero, or even as a role model. “I’m just a regular person,” she says.  “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that anyone else wouldn’t have done if they were in the same situation.”  She would, however, relish the opportunity to meet future scholarship recipients. “I’m just glad to be given an opportunity to help other students take on their challenges.”