‘I’ve Got This’
How civil rights lawyer Dana Kurtz used her legal skills to overcome a family tragedy
Published in 2017 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine on January 13, 2017
Dana Kurtz was working in her office on July 7, 2014, when the call came in. Her husband, Curt Kmiecek, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations veteran and experienced skydiver, had landed in a tree during a solo jump on the outskirts of Chicago. He was being flown by air ambulance to the nearest trauma hospital. Kurtz, a civil rights plaintiff’s lawyer and founding president of Kurtz Law Offices in Hinsdale, raced with her stepdaughter and paralegal to the hospital, praying the whole time. “It’s about an hour and a half from my office to Ottawa,” Kurtz recalls. “I think we got there in about 30 minutes.”
As he hurtled toward the ground at 150 mph, Kmiecek’s parachute had opened too quickly. The jolt injured his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
Then, a week later, a welcome surprise: He wiggled his toes. Still, a nurse at the Downers Grove hospital where he’d been transferred told the family—in front of him—that he’d never walk again. “You don’t know him,” Kurtz replied before demanding that the nurse be removed from the room. “You don’t know us.”
A tough, passionate litigator who has won multimillion-dollar jury awards in cases involving civil rights, police misconduct, employment discrimination and sexual harassment, Kurtz relied on some of the same skills she uses on the job to secure the best care for Kmiecek. She contacted Patrick Rummerfield, reportedly the first quadriplegic to recover from his injuries; seven weeks after the accident he helped her get Kmiecek into the renowned Kennedy Krieger Institute.
“As a lawyer, you have to have good research skills. I was constantly researching because I could not believe that people with spinal cord injuries could never recover,” says Kurtz, 45. “And being an advocate—that’s one of the things about the kind of law that we practice, and that I love focusing on. It’s always a fight. It’s always a struggle.”
Overseeing her husband’s painstaking recovery while maintaining her practice was exhausting. Kurtz took on a police brutality claim that made headlines in the fall of 2014 after a 14-year-old boy in the backseat of a car recorded Hammond police officers breaking the passenger window and using a Taser on his mother’s boyfriend during a traffic stop. Kurtz sued on behalf of the couple, who said they were on their way to see the woman’s dying mother. At the same time, Kurtz was in the middle of taking depositions in a case involving a female firefighter who claimed sexual harassment by male co-workers.
The excessive-force lawsuit against the Hammond Police Department remains on hold pending a criminal case, while the sexual harassment lawsuit is still in the discovery phase.
“There were times when I was like, ‘OK, I cannot do this,’” Kurtz says. “I had to really change what I was telling myself … from ‘I cannot handle this’ to ‘I’ve got this.’”
Kmiecek, who still has limited use of his left hand and arm, now drives and walks with a walking stick. In July 2016, on the second anniversary of his accident, he went tandem skydiving. A skydiver herself—Kmiecek introduced her to the sport in 2005—Kurtz understands her husband’s desire to get back in the air and attributes part of his recovery to their shared determination. Kmiecek is now writing a book about the accident and walking.
“I’m lucky he’s alive, and I’m lucky to be alive,” Kurtz says. “We need more of that [attitude] in terms of dealing with each other, dealing with the courts, dealing with cases, dealing with clients, having an appreciation for life. That’s been a big thing for me: just appreciating where I am and where he’s at and where we are.”