Cruel words have a price

Burn victim mocked by radio shock jocks ends legal action for $1 million

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Friday, December 7, 2007

Correction: Correction published December 8, 2007 State Supreme Court Justice John C. Egan Jr.'s first name was incorrect in a front-page story on Friday.

ROTTERDAM - For nearly two years, Athena Andrikopoulos didn't get an apology from the radio station that mocked her burn condition during a morning talk show.

Now she doesn't want one. But she will receive a $1 million settlement, under an agreement finalized Thursday in state Supreme Court in Albany. It was reached only hours after the Guilderland woman tearfully testified about the impact of a Feb. 15, 2006, broadcast on the former "JR in the Morning" program on WRCZ (94.5 FM).

"The money didn't mean anything to me," Andrikopoulos, 26, said during a Thursday afternoon interview in her family's business, the Redwood Diner in Rotterdam, where she was joined by her parents and siblings. "They used my scars as a joke just to get ratings. What they got in the end is a girl who is emotionally scarred."

Radio personality J.R. Gach and sidekick Shawn Bolts identified the woman as "Susie Burns" - and a host of other jaw-dropping monikers - and labeled her family's restaurant the "genetic mutant diner" during the broadcast.

Gach and Bolts' show has since gone off the air. While Bolts was present during the trial, Gach was believed to be in Florida.

Andrikopoulos and her family sued the shock jocks and their former bosses at the Syracuse-based Galaxy Communications, arguing the broadcast caused her severe emotional distress. The same jury that heard Andrikopoulos testify Wednesday was to decide the case as soon as today. The settlement ended the trial.

John Lynch, a New York City-based lawyer for Gach and Bolts, declined comment when contacted Thursday.

"I deeply regret the entire situation," Ed Levine, the chief executive officer for Galaxy Communications, told the court. "I am happy we are able to resolve it."

When Levine offered an apology this week, Andrikopoulos wouldn't accept it, she said.

And while some advisors suggested she remain quiet, she said, "I want people to know this is going past the line of decency."

The dark-haired Andrikopoulos, a slender woman with piercing blue eyes, was 2 years old when she accidently climbed up on her family's stove and was badly injured. Suffering burns over most of her body, she wasn't expected to survive longer than 48 hours, said her father, Peter Andrikopoulos. He moved to the United States from Greece in 1969 and met his wife, Gloria, after taking over the restaurant where she worked as a waitress.

Three decades later, their daughter has undergone more than 50 surgeries, overcoming odds to play organized sports and earn a degree from Endicott College in Massachusetts. She has also made a network of friends from New England to New Jersey.

Andrikopoulos was recovering from a recent surgery, working as a hostess, when Bolts patronized the restaurant on Valentine's Day 2006. The next morning, the shock jock told Gach about his dining experience, launching a lengthy dialogue that would ultimately get both men slammed with a lawsuit.

"It's really funny, dude," Bolts said, according to a transcript of the broadcast filed with the court. He then joked that he had encountered the "twin sister" of a burn victim they both apparently knew.

"Some burn victim? Some chick all burned up?" Gach asked. "It's not that I'm - I'm trying to pick on her," Bolts answered, adding, "It was Burn-neese, right?"

Bolts later said he went "just for laughs," prompting Gach to say, "What, do they got mutants in there? Is it like the - the genetic mutant restaurant?"

"I couldn't stop myself," Bolts replied. "I walked right in there last night. I went `Oh, no' ..."

"Hey, open that window. It's ... hot in here," Gach answered.

During the broadcast, the shock jocks called the family business the "Wormwood Diner" and mentioned its Hamburg Street location. They also encouraged people to visit the diner to view "Susie Burns" - and threatened to photograph her with a cellphone camera and post it on the Internet, the lawsuit noted.

At times the shock jocks would drift to other subjects - such as Vice President Dick Cheney's then-recent shooting incident - only to repeatedly focus back on the diner and Andrikopoulos, mentioning neither by name.

"You know we're going to get in trouble now, man," Bolts said at one point. Gach answered, "Man, come for the freaks and don't stay for the food."

They ended the broadcast playing the Talking Heads tune, "Burning Down the House."

Sitting at a corner table in the diner Thursday, Andrikopoulos' brother, Todd Davis, explained that the family initially did not tell his sister about the show. While she quickly learned about it, she did not listen to the broadcast until June when, according to her testimony, it literally made her vomit.

Her mother, Gloria Andrikopoulos, said the broadcast "blew her mind."

Davis said he supports freedom of speech liberties, but added, "This is going way too far, just bashing someone who has never done anything to anyone. She just came to work."

Donna Lieberman, who heads the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the First Amendment, which protects free speech, is invoked any time courts impose liability for expressive activity. But that does not make speech immune to litigation, she said.

Andrikopoulos is "clearly a pri vate individual" as opposed to a public figure, she said. And while no legal precedent was set, the case "definitely sends a message," she said.

"She's happy that the settlement is of a size that gets the attention of the media and those who especially engage in this type of activity," said Andrikopoulos' lawyer, Dan Centi, who handled the case alongside Michael Mackey.

Andrikopoulos remains upset at both shock jocks - and the station for not halting the show. She hoped to take classes at Siena College, or work at the Boston Shriner's Hospi tal, which aids burn victims. Now, she said, she isn't sure what the future holds.

In the courtroom, state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Egan gave the woman encouragement.

"Athena," the judge said, before sending the jury home, "what happened here was wrong. This is a good settlement. You're a good person. You're a beautiful person. And I want you to go out of here with your head held high, all right?"

Robert Gavin can be reached at 434-2403 or by e-mail at rgavin@