In a Metro section article yesterday, an economist misstated the cost of legal fees incurred by Cory Watts and his family in the course of a suit against Bell Helmets. Watts' lawyers took no fees. Most of the costs associated with the trial were a result of hiring expert witnesses to testify at the trial. CAPTION: Picture, Cory Watts . . . $500,000 in medical bills.
Cordelia Watts was a feisty Chinese woman who married an American fighter pilot after the Korean War and came home to Alexandria with him. She was not afraid of adversity and had what friends said was a will of iron.
When her husband Roy contracted polio 28 years ago, she took it in stride, friends said yesterday. In 1982, when her youngest son, Cory, was severely injured in a motorcycle accident, Cordelia Watts was constantly by his side. But friends said that after the accident, her inner strength began to crumble.
On Wednesday, two hours after the family lost a $10 million lawsuit that would have helped to offset Cory's medical bills, already more than $500,000 and growing at a rate of $50,000 a year, Cordelia Watts, 52, sent her husband on an errand, took the family revolver and emptied it into her son and herself.
"She just loved that boy so much you could see the pain inside her," said Patricia Tiernan, who had worked for two years as a rehabilitation therapist with Cory, who was left with brain damage and partial paralysis. "She fought for that kid from the moment he had the accident. She was angry and she was tough."
On Wednesday, after eight hours of deliberations, a jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria found no merit in a $10 million suit filed by the Watts family against Bell Helmets of Norwalk, Calif.
The suit contended that Bell had defectively designed the "Tourstar" helmet that Cory wore the night the motorcycle he was riding crashed into a concrete median on Shirley Highway in Arlington. The helmet cracked above the nape of his neck in the accident.
"I didn't feel good about that verdict, I don't think anybody did," said Ann P. Bay, education director of the Smithsonian Institution, who was a juror in the three-day trial. "Everybody would have loved to give them the money. They obviously needed it. But the evidence was so strongly in favor of Bell. We had no choice."
Yesterday, people who knew Cordelia Watts, her husband Roy and their three children, said the court decision was the one defeat she could not handle, and that she feared for the future of their 22-year-old son who needed constant care and continuing medical attention.
"You don't see many people like Cordelia. She had so many disappointments, and she just shrugged them off," said James McClure, director of guidance at Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School, where Cory was on the crew team until he graduated in 1981. "Roy had polio and that was hard on her. But Cory was her pride and joy and it just killed her to see him torn apart like that."
Cory went into a coma that lasted for three months immediately after the accident on Oct. 11, 1982.
Kathy Katz of Georgetown University Hospital's Child Development Center testified during the trial that she had examined Cory and found that after the accident he was mildly retarded, functioning on about the level of a 12-year-old.
His family testified that he was forgetful and that he had to have his food cut into pieces in order to feed himself. During Cory's stay in the hospital, Cordelia was there every day, friends said.
"She was always there. Every time I saw Cory, she was there, too," said Kathy O'Boyle, a neighbor of the Watts family on Stevens Street. "The older two were different than Cory, more independent, but Mrs. Watts cherished Cory." Friends and neighbors said that Cory and his mother were not always as close before the accident as she wanted them to be.
"She was incredibly strong and goal-oriented," said McClure, who has known the family for 15 years. "She wanted achievement from her children. Mei-Mei (26) and Raymond (28) were extremely bright. Cory was average, and average wasn't good enough for Cordelia."
Mrs. Watts insisted that Cory, an outstanding member of the crew team, but a shy, quiet teen-ager, take rigorous college preparatory courses when he had little desire to continue his education, according to McClure. "There was always a power struggle within the family," he said. "Cordelia could be very tough, but she always, always, wanted the best for her children."
Roy Watts, 61, who issued a statement on the family's behalf yesterday, calling for more stringent safety measures for motorcycle riders, declined further comment on the deaths of his wife and son. He has been a contracting officer with the Navy for the last 17 years, according to court documents.
Watts can walk only with the help of canes or crutches, and friends said he is a quiet man rarely seen or heard outside the house, even by neighbors who knew his wife well.
Recently, at the father's suggestion, the family bought Cory a personal computer, hoping that it might aid his memory and cognitive development, friends said.
"My father can't speak now. He has nothing to add at the moment," Mei-Mei Watts said yesterday. "My brother was a wonderful boy . . . and now our lives are just wrecked."
Almost everyone involved in the case against Bell, from the Bell lawyer to a courtroom reporter who thought Cordelia Watts had seemed "very strong and controlled," expressed shock at the news of the murder-suicide.
"What can you say about something like that?" said Fred. C. Alexander Jr., who represented Bell in the product liability suit. "Nobody could possibly anticipate it. We are all horrified. The people at Bell can only send the deepest condolences."
Some neighbors said that the constant thought that someday soon there might not be enough money to give Cory basic medical care caused the family the greatest distress.
Richard Lurito, an economist who testified as an expert witness at the trial, said that the Watts family spent more than $30,000 on legal fees during the long course of the litigation.
"They are dead broke," Lurito said. "They invested everything they had in this case and it wiped them out. There is absolutely nothing left."
Tiernan, the rehabilitation therapist who worked with the family and whose own child died after an automobile accident, said that the cost of therapy -- averaging about $18,000 a month for a bedridden person -- has become so profoundly expensive that many parents despair.
"The scope of this tragedy is huge," she said. "There is nothing more horrible in the world than to wonder what is going to happen to someone you love if they are incapacitated. It would make anyone sick."