Lawsuits against the Long Island Rail Road stemming from falls into the gap date back more than 35 years, with plaintiffs claiming injuries as severe as torn ligaments, fractured bones, paralysis and dismemberment.

Newsday examined 500 of the thousands of personal injury lawsuits filed since 1970 against the LIRR and its parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The suits were chosen by a Newsday reporter from courts in Suffolk, Nassau, Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn.

That review turned up 63 gap-related injury suits and 65 claims for slips and falls on stairs. These two categories were the most common claims of the 500 cases examined.

The gap plaintiffs Newsday found ranged in age from 17 to 82, with the majority in their 20s and 30s when they fell into a gap. Many were daily commuters.

Most plaintiffs settled before trial but were reluctant to disclose their settlement figures, and some signed nondisclosure agreements.

Newsday found that the railroad paid out $681,500 to 15 of the gap victims whose settlement figures were available. Those 15 cases have been settled since 1985.

"How much money are they spending paying out for these victims of accidents when they could be putting the money into fixing the problems?" asked Sally Srok, 42, who sued the LIRR after her 1990 fall into a gap at the Mineola station.

Srok, now a project developer living in California, opted to accept a settlement for her leg injury in 1994, though she declined to specify the amount.

Despite several requests from Newsday, LIRR officials repeatedly said that they do not comment on litigation matters.

Of the legal cases Newsday looked at, there were 16 pending gap-related lawsuits, with one seeking $50 million in damages, the highest amount of any of the lawsuits reviewed. The suit was filed by Sheila Rann, 67, a former Rockette who broke her neck in a fall through the gap at the Forest Hills station on Oct. 8, 2004. Rann is now paralyzed from the neck down, making her among the most severely injured in recent years from a gap fall, according to court records.

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And in the case of the railroad's most high-profile gap incident, one that led to the death of Minnesota teen Natalie Smead, her family filed suit in October seeking $5 million in damages.

Most of the pending suits have not asked for a specific amount in damages. Suits that have been settled and had asked for an amount are typically settled for a fraction of what was asked.

That was the case for Arlene Gold, of Hewlett, who was 49 when she plunged through the gap at Jamaica on March 29, 1982, severely crushing her left leg. Gold sued the LIRR for $100,000 and settled three years later for $3,000, frustrated with the protracted legal proceedings.

Josephine Manteria of North Merrick, who sued for $1 million in 1993 after falling through a gap at Merrick and injuring her leg, settled in 1998 for $12,000.

The few jury verdicts that were awarded for gap injuries were generally higher than the settlement amounts. The railroad awarded a total of $510,000 to two passengers who fell into the gap at Penn Station's Track 17 in the 1980s, Newsday found.

One case involved a 29-year-old New York University student who fractured his tailbone after a 1983 accident. The man said he was pushed into the gap by a "surge of commuters." His attorney said the LIRR should have bridged the gap with a movable platform or kept the doors closed at the danger spots. The student sued for $2 million. While a $400,000 verdict was awarded, it was reduced to $360,000 because it was found by a jury to be partially the victim's fault.

Another suit involved a 48-year-old public relations employee who fractured his ankle in 1988 when he fell into the gap up to his hip. The LIRR's response was that the man was aware of the gap and wasn't paying attention when he fell. The jury found that the MTA and LIRR were completely at fault and awarded $150,000 to the plaintiff.

Not all passengers who fall into gaps report the incident, and of those who do, only a fraction sue for damages, records and interviews show.

Paul Edelman, a personal injury lawyer in Carle Place who said he has handled about 10 gap-related suits against the LIRR in the last 20 years, said that sometimes people are too embarrassed to file suit against the railroad immediately.

"People will call, after the fact, and I ask, did you call anyone? They'll say no, I fell, got up, people were looking at me. I was embarrassed. I got up, my leg was killing me, I got on the train. My leg didn't get better," Edelman said.

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Under state law, a victim has to notify the railroad that they plan to sue within 90 days, or the case will be dropped.

Rose Zully, who fell into the gap at Valley Stream in 1970, lost her ability to proceed with her suit because she filed late. The 72-year-old widow said in court papers that her debilitating injuries caused her to miss the deadline.