The call came in the late afternoon, testified Lillian Busch, a 26-year-old Bethesda woman, and the debt collector warned her to pay a delinquent dental bill or face going to jail.
Busch fled her home and later jumped from a five-story building, nearly killing herself.
All for a delinquent bill of $74.
On Thursday, for the second time in less than a year, a federal jury found against the collection agency, Tri-State Credit Corp., of Crofton, Md. The jury awarded Busch $500,000. Tri-State has said it will appeal the verdict.
In the trial before U.S. Magistrate Fredric N. Smalkin, Busch was described by her lawyer as "emotionally fragile . . . almost childlike." Doctors said she was a paranoid schizophrenic with dull-normal intelligence and a history of psychiatric hospitalizations.
Busch said she left her Highland Avenue home in fear on May 27, 1982, and leaped from a parking garage on Old Georgetown Road, crashing onto the concrete below. She broke bones in her feet, ankles, legs, pelvis and jaw. When a policeman arrived to help her, according to court testimony, Busch asked him if he was there to arrest her. Why? he asked. Because of her "medical bills," she was quoted as saying.
In August, a jury awarded Busch $500,000 -- $400,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages -- but the verdict was thrown out because of legal inconsistencies. The case was retried this week, resulting in a similar $500,000 award, but all of it in compensatory damages for medical costs.
"I'm pleased with it; I think it was good," said Busch's father, John, 71, a retired Interstate Commerce Commission employe.
Despite difficulties over the years with Lillian -- one of nine children in the family -- "we consider ourselves luckier than some people," John Busch said in an interview today.
At the time of the suicide attempt, Lillian Busch was living at home with two brothers and a sister. Her parents had recently won a $5,000 Maryland lottery jackpot and were traveling in Europe. During their absence, Tri-State collection agent Carol Bigelow called Busch and asked her to pay the $74 dental bill, delinquent for 19 months.
Bigelow, a 17-year employe of the firm, denied threatening jail -- a collection technique specifically prohibited by state and federal debt collection laws -- and said she simply reminded Busch of her obligation to pay the bill, even if she was currently unemployed.
Busch's attorney, James P. Ulwick, argued that the alleged threat of imprisonment triggered the decision by Busch, already "emotionally ill," to take her life.
Tri-State attorney Bruce R. Parker countered not only that the threat never occurred but that Busch's unstable condition was worsened by her parents' leaving her to go to Europe. Among other things, Parker said, Busch stopped taking medication for her mental condition, causing her to "regress."
Ulwick argued that Busch did not stop the medication, or if she did, its long-lasting effects would have prevented her from regressing during her parents' month-long absence. Also, he said, Lillian was left in the care of brothers and a sister while the parents were gone.
Family members acknowledged the $74 dental bill went unpaid for a long time. Originally a $150 bill, the family paid about half of it, then informed the dentist the remainder would be paid when Lillian got a job, according to court testimony. John Busch said today Lillian "held a few baby-sitting jobs" but was unable to obtain full-time employment before the suicide attempt.