A 26-year-old Northwest Washington woman whose leg was permanently disfigured four years ago when the motorcycle on which she was riding was hit by a car was awarded $8 million in damages by a D.C. Superior Court jury yesterday in what is believed to be the largest verdict handed down here.

Jack Olender, attorney for the injured woman, said the verdict "demonstrates that the public placed proper value on human life and limb . . . . Nobody would take the mangled, damaged leg that she has for $8 million if you took it out on the street."

The driver of the car and the attorney for her and her insurance company, Paul H. Ethridge, could not be reached for comment. It is expected that Ethridge will ask that the verdict be set aside or will request a new trial.

On July 11, 1981, Linda Couse, now a telephone operator, was riding on the back of a motorcycle to her job as a cashier at a clothing store when the motorcycle was hit by a car pulling out of a parking lot on 19th Street NW.

Couse and the driver of the motorcycle were thrown. The muscle tissue in Couse's leg was destroyed to the bone, leaving permanent scars, Olender said.

Couse filed suit against the driver of the car, Miriam Shuchman of West Haven, Conn., who was then a 20-year-old research assistant at the Urban Institute of Washington and living temporarily in the city.

Couse claimed that Shuchman "failed to yield the right of way, failed to keep a proper lookout and failed to pay full time and attention to traffic under the circumstances."

Shuchman, who said she was driving only about 5 mph at the time, denied any negligence, saying she braked immediately when she saw the motorcycle. She blamed the accident on the driver of the motorcycle, saying he was going too fast and could have avoided the collision.

Couse said her medical expenses amounted to $28,000. She said her left leg is now about half an inch shorter and she must wear an orthopedic brace. She claimed "extreme pain, suffering and mental anguish" and asked for $2 million in damages in her suit.

Several lawyers not involved in the case immediately called the award excessive.

"There's just no way that an injured leg can be worth $8 million," said lawyer Joseph Barse, calling the award "outrageous."

Court documents show that Shuchman offered to settle the case for $100,000, but that Olender, until shortly before the trial, had insisted on no less than $1 million.

The insurance companies "had an opportunity to settle within the [coverage] limit but exposed [Shuchman] to liability," Olender said. "They gambled and said, 'What do we care?' "

"We will go after the insurance carrier for the whole thing," Olender said. "That's what we will try to do."

Lawyers said it is customary in cases in which the defendant cannot pay to reach a settlement agreement that includes a release allowing the plaintiff to sue the insurers for the balance of the jury award.

"If a company unreasonably refuses to settle a case within its policy, the aggrieved party can proceed against their carrier for failing to use the funds they had available," said lawyer Robert Cadeaux.

A year ago, Cadeaux won a $6 million verdict in Fairfax County on behalf of a man who was struck by a jeep while riding his motorcycle. The motorcyclist suffered brain damage and paralysis.

The driver of the jeep, a computer repairman, had only $50,000 in insurance coverage. Cadeaux brought a second claim against the insurance company and has since settled for an undisclosed amount.

Yesterday's verdict comes on the heels of a $6 million award in Superior Court to a woman who claimed she lost her pituitary gland and her "womanhood" because of bleeding she suffered following childbirth at a local hospital.

"It used to be that machinery and property were the important things in life. But the public is now realizing that life and health are the real important things in life, "Olender said, explaining the large verdicts.