PORTLAND – You could call it a personal-injury settlement, although there were no lawyers, no lawsuit and no big check to cover the medical bills and other costs that come with being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Instead, Jana Curran walked away with enough simple satisfaction to fill a football stadium.

“A lot of people didn’t believe me at first when I said I was going to do this,” Curran said this week as demolition crews dismantled the bleachers at Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium. “They didn’t think something like this would ever happen.”

They thought wrong.

Just over two years ago, Curran was simply another parent in the rickety stands at Fitzpatrick, watching a friend’s daughter play for Portland High School’s field hockey team. Spotting a group of friends sitting below her, she got up and descended the stairway to join them.

“That’s when I landed on a stair that wasn’t bolted in anymore — the bolts had all fallen out,” she recalled. “It was like stepping on a diving board.”

It could have been worse — Curran could have landed on her head. But it was bad enough — as she twisted to maintain her balance and land upright, she broke a foot.

The team’s assistant trainer came running. A cell phone alert went out to Curran’s husband. And the next thing a thoroughly embarrassed Curran knew, the trainer was carrying her down the stands and out to the parking lot, from where Curran’s husband ferried her to the hospital.

Curran, whose son played four years of football and lacrosse for Portland, recalled “telling people long before then that somebody was going to get hurt in these stands someday. Little did I know it would be me.”

She spent two weeks on crutches and five weeks in an air cast. Between the immobility and the painkillers, she lost almost two weeks of income from her private practice as a speech-and-language therapist.

Then came the surprise. Figuring she could at least recoup her lost wages and out-of-pocket medical expenses from the city, Curran ran headlong into the Maine Tort Claims Act, which exempts the city from liability for injuries sustained on “land, buildings, structures, facilities or equipment designed for use primarily by the public in connection with public outdoor recreation.”

Translation: When it comes to dangerous bleachers, you can’t fight City Hall. You can’t even sue it.

Curran couldn’t believe it.

“My take was, ‘Listen, when I go to a facility like that, I’m assuming it’s safe and was inspected and I’m not going to be injured as a fan,’” she said. “This was wrong. We have a lot of elderly people who go to these games — what if one of them had fallen? This could lead to a really serious injury.”

(Curran’s incredulity rose even higher when a custodial worker at Fitzpatrick later told her that missing bolts were a chronic problem — it seemed that whenever fans stomped their feet to urge on Portland’s Bulldogs, the bolts would start falling out from beneath the floorboards.)

And so, in lieu of Curran’s day in court, a crusade was born.

She began with the football and cheering boosters and Portland Connections, a Portland High School parent advocacy group. If she wrote the letter, they told her, they’d all be more than happy to sign it.

She then set her sights on the city manager’s office, each and every member of the City Council and School Committee, and anyone else who might help, not just to make the bleachers safer, but to replace them altogether.

Truth be told, the city already had identified Fitzpatrick’s bleachers as one of many capital improvement projects competing for ever-limited funding. But as City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg noted Thursday, a little community pressure can go a long way in determining what makes it to the top of the list, and how quickly.

Clegg said what struck city officials about Curran was that she wasn’t focused on making anyone pay — politically if not financially — for what happened to her. In fact, it didn’t seem to be about Curran at all.

Instead, it was about averting what Curran and many others feared was an all-out catastrophe waiting to happen — and with good reason. It turns out the concrete and steel that held up the old bleachers were literally coming apart at the seams in some sections before the wreckers moved in on Monday.

“She was enthusiastic,” Clegg said. “She channeled her energies in the right ways. She got people excited about this.”

And, lo and behold, she had good timing.

Thanks to the recession’s impact on the construction industry, the bids came in at roughly half the original estimates — meaning the city can replace both the home and visitors’ bleachers for $950,000 immediately, rather than spread the project over two years.

Better yet, most of the old steel that’s being removed will be sold to recyclers. Clegg said the proceeds, which will be in the “tens of thousands,” will be rolled back into the project.

In short, Curran’s loss — and how she chose to deal with it — became the entire community’s gain.

“I would say it was a very amicable relationship,” said Clegg. “She just wanted a good outcome and we wanted a good outcome.”

A few days ago, as the project finally got under way, a city official told Curran that the city should rename the refurbished Fitzpatrick Stadium after her.

Hmmm a possible bargaining chip?

“I don’t want the stadium renamed,” she said with a laugh. “Just put my name on a little plaque on one of those stairs and I’ll be happy.”

You heard that right, folks. A legitimate victim, who collected nary a dime, is nevertheless walking away happy.

Case closed.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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