Woman injured by multiple DUI driver backs legislation

An X-ray of Ellie Phipps’ spine.



John Wesley Plotner



Ellie Phipps, wearing a back brace, stands by the intersection of Seventh Street and Grand Avenue, where a drunken driver slammed into her car on an early Saturday morning in April, 2011. The man who hit her previously had been convicted of multiple DUIs.



QUICKREAD

FELONY DUI, BY THE NUMBERS

■ 24,124 — Number of drunken-driving cases in Colorado in the 2013-14 fiscal year

■ 306 — Number of repeat drunken driving offenders in 2013-14

■ 5 — Number of states without felony DUI laws, including Colorado

■ 4 — Proposed threshold of lifetime drunken-driving offenses that would qualify for a felony

■ $13.5 million — Estimated three-year cost of Colorado’s proposed DUI felony bill

■ $657,000 — Ellie Phipps’ estimated medical costs from April 16, 2011, collision

■ $500,000 — Maximum DUI felony fine

Source: Legislative analysis of HB1043, other sources



Ellie Phipps, a busy Grand Junction entrepreneur, met John Wesley Plotner, a six-time drunken driver, on April 16, 2011.

Since then, Phipps flatlined three times and was resuscitated on an operating room table, had to place her business in hiatus, “sold everything that wasn’t nailed down,” and has embarked on a mission to make sure that people with multiple drunken-driving offenses can be put behind bars.

Plotner on that day earned his seventh arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, and came perilously close to adding vehicular homicide to an already long rap sheet.

Since that day, Plotner has been booked five times into the Mesa County Jail on a wide range of charges, from failure to appear in court to unlawful possession of a controlled substance to criminal impersonation.

If Colorado were among the 45 states that recognize as a felony multiple instances of drunken driving, Plotner might have been behind bars rather than behind the wheel when he plowed into the back of Phipps’ car, which was stopped at a red light in downtown Grand Junction.

Phipps today is to testify before the House Finance Committee in favor of House Bill 1043. A proposed amendment would make a driver’s third DUI conviction within seven years under aggravating circumstances — or an outright fourth DUI — a Class 4 felony that could be punished by two to six years in the Department of Corrections and a fine of up to $500,000.

“I am forever changed and remain physically disabled by (Plotner’s) choice to drink alcohol and drive a car despite having been arrested six times prior for DUI,” Phipps wrote to legislators. “My medical bills were in excess of $675,000 and I have lost most everything I have spent a lifetime building and achieving, at no fault of my own.”

The proposed amendment — which is supported by the Colorado chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers — would cost $1.4 million this year, $4 million in 2016-17 and $8 million in 2017-18.

The state is looking at excess revenues this year and, “We’re asking for a small percentage of that,” said Fran Lanzer, executive director of MADD.

Clad in a brace that supports her largely man-made spine, Phipps walked gingerly toward the intersection of Seventh Street and Grand Avenue, which was where her car was rear-ended by Plotner that morning.

She was headed to an early-morning workout and was waiting for the light to turn before she could drive east on Grand. Plotner was closing rapidly, at about 45 mph.

“I saw his lights approaching, but I didn’t even have a chance to go through the intersection,” Phipps said. “He slammed into the back of me.”

Plotner told her he hadn’t been drinking, but she saw him stumbling toward her in her vehicle. He leaned on her sideview mirror for support while he called police to tell them the driver had fled the accident.

“I could overhear him saying, ‘He ran away, a Hispanic male in a black shirt and black shorts,’” Phipps recalled.

Physicians determined Plotner was the driver after finding bruises on his right shoulder and left hip, the kind that only can be made by the driver’s-side seatbelt. His car was borrowed and he was uninsured.

Phipps’ injuries were so complicated that only one neurosurgery practice would touch her, Phipps said.

A year later at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Phipps underwent a 12-hour surgery called an open-heart thoracotomy.

The procedure entailed “a cardio-thoracic surgeon opening my body up for front surgical entry — with a 10-inch long incision that runs from the middle of my back, around and across my ribcage to the front middle of my right chest, then taking out/removing two ribs, detaching my diaphragm, deflating and detaching one lung — removing it from my body during surgery, and temporarily moving my heart and aorta over to expose the thoracic spine for the neurosurgeon,” Phipps wrote to the Legislature.

It was during that procedure that her heart flatlined three times, she required 12 transfusions of blood, and her family twice was told to expect the worst, Phipps said.

By the time she reaches the Capitol today to testify, Phipps will have to pull off the road three or four times to rest and resettle into her spinal brace.

Plotner remains in jail awaiting a hearing on his most recent charges. The jail’s website notes that while he had bond of $1,013 on the failure to appear charge and $500 on the criminal impersonation case, there is a hold “that could prevent him from being eligible for release after posting bond.”

Phipps said she still hopes to salvage something from the damage she endured since 2011.

After the wreck, she had to lay off about a dozen employees — “So this has an economic impact, as well,” she noted — but she remains the owner of O2 Communications and is a former part-owner of Monument Graphics. “I hope to resurrect my business,” Phipps said. “It’s been on hiatus.”

More immediately, though, she hopes to see the DUI felony bill become law.

“I’m willing to do anything to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Phipps said.


COMMENTS

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Ms. Phipps, I am so sorry for you and hope you continue to heal. I also hope they throw the book at Plotner and throw him in jail for a very long time. My mother was killed by a drunk driver and he didn’t see one hour in a jail cell. I will pray for you and that you can get this bill passed.

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