Archive for the ‘Construction Site’ Category

Settlement Update: $900,000 in Benefits For Injured Worker When a Contractor ‘Covers Up” — The Case of the Deleted Defect

Torn Rotator Cuff

MALIS|LAW has obtained a stream of payments of over $700,000, along with waiver of a $210,000 workers’ compensation lien, for an electrician who injured her neck and shoulder after tripping over a floor hazard on a poorly lit construction site, even though the general contractor apparently attempted to ‘get rid of the evidence’ before it was observed by its own safety director.

AN ELECTRICIAN TRIPS AND IS HURT: My client was a 41 year old experienced female electrical worker assisting in the construction of a major addition to a Boston hospital.  While wiring an unfinished floor’s alarm system, she was walking with a spool of wire and tripped over bolt stubs protruding through the floor of a dimly lit corridor.  She fell forward into a pipe rack at the side of the hallway, injuring her left shoulder rotator cuff.  Within minutes of her fall, a crew of workers apparently descended on the accident scene, grinding the bolts level with the floor (leaving shiny patches on the concrete) and stringing new lighting in the hallway.  When the project safety director showed up at the accident scene, he observed a brightly lit corridor with orange paint splotches on the floor where the bolts had been.

THE INJURIES: My client suffered a torn rotator cuff immediately after the accident, which was surgically repaired.  The repair disclosed that the torn shoulder had obscured radiating neck pain into her shoulder caused by a disk herniation, which was surgically addressed by neck fusion.  We contended that she could no longer work in the construction trades, which required heavy exertion, which would cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars in future lost earnings from a highly paid and specialized trade.

OUR INVESTIGATION: Through two years of discovery and depositions, we were able to build a strong case that the general contractor and lighting contractor were negligent, including the following evidence:

  • My client presented a co-worker and independent witness who both verified the presence of the bolts before and after the accident.
  • Persistent document subpoenas and court orders produced ample records that the project lighting contractor had been criticized by the general contractor and its own inspectors for failure to replace burnt out project lighting promptly.
  • A safety audit conducted two weeks prior to my client’s fall harshly criticized the cleanliness of the project’s walkways, citing multiple trip hazards and trash.
  • A deposition of another worker disclosed that the bolts and poor lighting had caused another worker to trip days before, and that the worker had complained to the project’s safety director, who had failed either to note his complaint or to take action to remedy the hazard.
  • Although no one came forward to disclose the workers’  grinding of the floor bolts and new lighting, my client’s project supervisor verified the presence  four shiny ground down bolts in the floor within 40 minutes of the accident, in a pattern which suggested that the bolts had been used to secure an elevator hoist (the elevators had been fully installed weeks before).
  • The project safety director admitted that although he had investigated the accident scene, camera in hand, within 30 minutes of the accident, he failed to document conditions on the scene, although it was his and the general contractor’s policy that he do so.
  • The general contractor had written a letter to all subcontractors weeks prior to the accident detailing poor safety conditions and threatening to backcharge contractors for correcting them.
  • My client’s accident report was withheld for two weeks prior to disclosure to the project’s insurer, with no explanation of why the information was not immediately forwarded.

OUR STRATEGY: We used these facts to paint a picture of a poorly supervised and generally unsafe site, with the project owner and supervisors on notice of impending problems, and an embattled safety director new to the site and not up to speed.  These circumstances would lead a jury to infer that the accident was ‘covered up’ to avoid project controversy, supporting our claims of negligence.

PROVING DISABILITY: As to injury, the contractors and their insurers and attorneys contended that the Plaintiff’s injuries were largely healed and her complaints of pain were largely distorted.  An attempt to intimidate my client with a late-disclosed private investigation which purportedly showed that she was able to perform work was frustrated by a court order allowing the investigator’s deposition.  The investigator admitted (less than a week before a court-scheduled mediation) that he had not observed my client engaging in any substantial exertion, and that she had labored in picking up pieces of firewood that a delivery company had dropped in her driveway.

THE SETTLEMENT: At mediation, we were able to persuade my client’s workers’ compensation insurer to drop its right to be repaid $210,000 in compensation payments which my client had received, and to persuade the liability insurer to pay a stream of payments worth in total over $700,000 over a five year period.  These payments ennabled my client to retrain, and she now works for an electrical contractor in a supervisory position, without need for substantial exertion, at or near her prior pay level.

Settlement Update: $4.1 Million Settlement For Construction Worker’s Spinal Injury After Staircase Falls — The Case of the Slumping Staircase

 

The "$4 Million Dollar Stairs"

Attorney Daniel Malis of MALIS|LAW, with the assistance of  Attorney Frederick Fairburn of Fairburn & Dyke in Lawrence, announced the culmination last week of five years of litigation involving the collapse of a stairway on a construction project in Hampton, NH which injured a Massachusetts plumber, though a settlement from various defendants totalling $4.1 million.

SERIOUS INJURY ON CONSTRUCTION SITE: The wood framed, 17 stair staircase collapsed after framing contractors, under the instruction of the general contractor, disconnected the stairs from side supports to insert fireproof drywall, but left the stairs in that disconnected fashion for a period of time between 1 day and more than two weeks depending upon which witness was believed.  My client, a plumber, was climbing the staircase when it collapsed.  When the staircase struck the landing below, the small of his back struck the edge of the stairs, crushing one of his vertebrae.  Following the collapse, the general contractor immediately re-erected the stairway; secured all stairways at the sides with extra nailers; and did not disclose the accident to local inspectors or the project engineer during a site visit the following day.

Demonstrative Evidence Showing the Damage to Client's Spine

MY CLIENT’S SPINAL INJURY: My client, a married 35 year old Massachusetts apprentice plumber, suffered a crush injury to his L1 vertebra when a 17 stair wood frame staircase gave way.  He was med-evacuated from a NH hospital to Beth Israel Hospital where he underwent the first of three surgeries over 5 years to stabilize his back, including, by the time of the final surgery, a four level lumbar fusion, with fixating steel rods extending over 7 vertebrae, and with additional surgery likely in the future.   While his motor functions were preserved, the employee remained in chronic, debilitating pain, with narcotic pain relief as his only medical recourse, and, according to Plaintiff’s vocational expert, was permanently totally disabled.  Plaintiff’s vocational expert and economist calculated the present value of his earnings loss over his career at $1.7 million which, with his $400,000 in medical expenses to date and continuing, presented special damages in excess of $2.1 million.

FINDING THE BEST FORUM FOR MY CLIENT: Rather than bringing suit in New Hampshire, we brought suit under diversity jurisdiction in federal court in Massachusetts against the engineer, architect and general contractor.  The New Hampshire-based design professionals claimed that Massachusetts had no jurisdiction over the case, and that the lawsuit belonged in New Hampshire, with a local judge to decide my client’s fate.  Despite the presentation of carefully worded affidavits from the architect and engineer which distanced the ‘design team’ from Massachusetts, our own investigation showed that both professionals were licensed in Massachusetts and had substantial contacts with this state, and the court denied their motion.

BUILDING A STRONG CASE: Vigorous discovery disclosed the identity of a Massachusetts –based framing supplier who had contracted to perform the framing, along with two NH-based framing subcontractors hired by that company to do the actual work.  These companies were joined as third party defendants.  The general contractor blamed the framers for the collapse; the framers claimed that they destabilized the staircase at the general contractor’s instruction.

THE CONTRACTORS’ NEGLIGENCE: Depositions of witnesses and other site contractors revealed that the staircases were not built according to plan or specification.  Testimony and post-accident photographs taken by a separate plumbing contractor who was first on the scene revealed that the subcontracting framers had sloppily  ‘toenailed’ the bottom of the stringers at an angle into plywood on the platform, instead of using a cleat or nailer which would have allowed the stringers to be nailed straight through the plywood platform securely into the carrying  beam. This substandard bottom connection of the staircase,  allowed the stair bottom to slip and kick out over time once the general contractor ordered the staircase to be disconnected for drywall installation, and was a major contributing cause of the staircase collapse..  The framing contractors’ departure from site plans and use of substandard attachment methods were not detected by the general contractor; the framing supplier, who contractually agreed to supervise the framing work; or the architect and engineer, who had contracted to inspect the site.

During a day-long deposition, the framing contractor who disconnected the stairs at their sides for drywall installation finally admitted that he knew that he had rendered the staircases unstable.  He admitted that while he would normally block off stairs left in this precarious shape, he could not explain why he did not do so on the stairs at this site.  These admissions established clear liability on the framing subcontractors, as well as confirmed the general contractor’s negligence for ordering the disconnection and failing to observe the improper staircase installation.     .

THE DEFENDANTS TRY TO EVADE LIABILITY: While the Plaintiff had established uncontroverted evidence of a drastic injury, the extent of his disability was disputed by the Defendants with a vocational assessment which, despite the Plaintiff’s dependence on narcotic painkillers, alleged that he still had the ability to consistently perform light duty work.  This was rebutted not only by the Plaintiff’s sympathetic appearance and supporting opinions from two orthopedic surgeons, as well as a vocational expert, but also by the graphic evidence shown above demonstrating that his seven level spinal fusion was unstable, with the securing screws shifting in his vertebral bodies and eroding the bone in which they were secured.

Following discovery, the parties attended a day long mediation, which was initially sought by the Defendants to settle the claim.  However, negotiations were reduced to a full day of finger pointing among the Defendants, with no real offers made.   We took advantage of this apparent disaster by sending demand letters under c.93A to the insurers for the general contractor and the framing supplier, based upon their complete failure to promptly evaluate the Plaintiffs’ claim and accurately address their exposures.

Eventually, on the date that responses to Plaintiff’s demand letters were due, the dispute (which at end turned out to be an argument over legal fees between the Defendants) was tabled between the insurers, and the general contractor and framing supplier tendered their full policy limits of $2 million to resolve both parties’ liability.  This opened a window to settle with the erring framing joint venture for $1.6 million, leaving the so-called ‘design professionals’, the architect and engineer, who had yet to tender an offer.

THE ARCHITECT AND ENGINEER’S NEGLIGENCE: The so-called ‘design team’ initially declined to settle, and presented a vigorous defense, despite admissions from the architect that the project engineer should have detected the improper staircase installation.  Counsel for the designers sought summary judgment, alleging that the entire cause of collapse was the building contractors’ negligence, and that the architect and engineer played no role in the staircase’s collapse.  Plaintiff presented countering affidavits from a construction expert and design experts initially presented by the settling Defendants and then retained by Plaintiff.  Summary Judgment was denied, and the case scheduled for trial in early 2010.

Plaintiffs further sought an order from the Court pending trial seeking to prevent offset of the settlement against any jury award, based upon New Hampshire’s ‘hybrid’ contribution statute, which awards damages based upon a contributing defendant’s percentage of negligent contribution to an accident (so-called ‘pure contribution’) but does not credit the settlement contributions of other settling parties.   While this motion was pending, the parties attended a half day mediation session with the previous mediator, Attorney Mulvey, and, over the strenuous objections of the architect and engineer, their insurers settled the remaining claims for $500,000, bringing the my client and his wife’s total recovery to just over $4.1 million.

The Case of the Prior Pain — The Fact and Fiction of Earlier Injuries

Many insurers (and, sometimes, even lawyers who represent injury victims) would have you believe that if you’ve had a prior injury or case, it will severely harm your present case, or limit or eliminate your damages. In my experience, in the hands of a good trial attorney, that ‘weakness’ can often be turned into a ‘strength’.

If you take the right steps, reveal your history to your lawyer, and retain a properly skilled and diligent trial attorney, you can reverse the myth and maximize your recovery.

Here’s two great examples of how we can deal with medical history and complications here at MALIS|LAW, from past cases:

1. The Classic ‘Bad Back Made Worse” — I had a client who was injured on a construction site, who’d had a bad back that was so troublesome that he was seeing a chiropractor and orthopedic surgeon on a monthly basis before he had the fall that led him to hire me.

At trial, we demonstrated graphically with before-and-after Xrays and MRIs that his fall had tremendously accelerated the rate of deterioration of his spine. His treating doctor testified that his pre-existing degenerative condition made his spine far more vulnerable to trauma like that caused by his fall. His wife testified that while he had given up many of his favorite sports activities, his one source of pride as a man was his ability to work and earn, and that this accident was, literally, the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’.

A jury awarded him well over a million dollars for his claim.

2. Drug Addiction — Insurers love to put an injured person’s illegal drug use in front of a jury to ‘tar’ a claimant. In one case in my office, however, we were able to turn that potential weakness into a strength:

A client came to my office with an awful injury. During his recovery from surgery, his need to take opiate pain killers to deaden his pain brought back an old ‘street’ addiction to illegal narcotics. Eventually, his family had to have him hospitalized to rehabilitate. Massachusetts law, however, prevents admitting evidence of addiction or illegal narcotic use as damages.

We were still able to use my client’s dramatic story, however, to underscore the extent of his damages. I was able to demonstrate, through family and physician testimony, the depths of his pain; the complications from his addiction; and the completeness of his rehabiltation, and the help he received from his wife ad his family. Even though we couldn’t introduce evidence of accident related addiction, we still retained an expert in the field of addiction who would be prepared to testify that his accident related opiate use ‘triggered his addiction’. This presented the insurers with a dilemma; if THEY introduced the evidence of my client’s drug addiction to lessen my client’s reputation with the jury, they faced potential admissibility of his addiction as a damage.

Despite this potentially ‘lethal’ complication in my client’s treatment, the case settled for many millions of dollars (and, I’m pleased to say, the client has successfully warded off his addiction).

Here’s a few general rules of how to deal with your medical history in YOUR case . . .

1. BE HONEST WITH YOUR LAWYER.

Disclose your prior medical history in detail to your lawyer when you hire them. Don’t hold back information because you think it will discourage the attorney, or prevent them from working hard for you. The lawyer’s worst enemy in a personal injury case is an undisclosed prior injury. However, if you disclose your past history, the lawyer may well find ways to maximize your recovery, as you’ll see below.

2. UNDERSTAND THE LEGAL STANDARD.

The law in virtually every state will compensate an injury victim for the extent that an injury worsens a prior condition, even if the nature of the trauma wouldn’t have ordinarily injured a hale and healthy ‘victim’. The law ‘takes victims as they find them’. For example, if a prior trauma worsened a kneecap so much that another trauma, even if light, fractured it, the victim’s entitled to recover for damages for the fractured knee. However, in awarding or assessing damages the jury (or insurer) can take into account the fact that the knee was already not 100% to begin with.

3. TELL YOUR DOCTORS YOUR ENTIRE HISTORY.

Just as with your attorneys, don’t hold back details from your medical doctors. Most physicians will tell you that ‘patient history’ during interviews is a critical diagnostic and treatment tool. Just as with your attorneys, your doctors need to know about your past to give accurate appraisals of your present and future condition. If something troubled you before the accident, even if it was previously resolved, let your doctor know (even if they don’t come out and asked). If you had an ongoing problem, make sure the doctor knows about it, and also knows whether it’s different or worsened now. A full and accurate medical history will help you get the maximum recovery from medical treatment (which should always be your goal, as no personal injury settlement will make up for your loss of health).

4. DON’T DECIDE WHAT’S IMPORTANT OR WHAT’S NOT — DISCLOSE EVERYTHING.

Obviously, the first question about a prior injury or claim is: are they not at all related? A prior knee injury will likely have nothing to do with hurting your shoulder. A chronic problem with your finger has little effect on a brain trauma. While these are obvious exaggerations, they still can be used by a skilfull defense lawyer to hurt your credibility if they aren’t disclosed up front. This might seem counter-logical — why create a record that could hurt your case? However, understand that insurers conduct thorough investigations of claimants, through attorneys and, during litigation, using the formal tools of discovery. Assume that the insurer will not find out, and trust me, they will, and will use your non-disclosure as an excuse for not paying you fairly for your injury. Assume that they will, and you take this weapon away from them, and allow your lawyer to tell the story that benefits you best from the real facts at hand.

5. DON’T EXAGGERATE OR MINIMIZE A PRIOR INJURY.

Often, orthopedic injuries heal in a relatively short time. Sometimes, they don’t, presenting nagging injuries that last for years. In either case, the insurer’s best strategy is to get an injured person to distort or lie about their past, ‘trying the lie’. Since a jury tends to distrust injured persons seeking compensation anyhow, the insurers and their attorneys try to make the injured person less credible, suggesting that a misstatement about something years ago amounts to a lie being told today. The best way to frustrate that strategy is to look back, honestly, at your injury ‘past’, and make sure your attorney knows about it. Review the records with them when he or she obtains them, and refresh your memory about the prior history, especially prior to answering interrogatories (questions under oath) or to giving a deposition (a sworn statement under oath).

6. LOOK FOR CONNECTIONS

So you’ve injured the same part of your body twice. Any orthopedic doctor would tell you that a prior trauma to an area creates a greater likelihood that a second trauma will cause more or worsened damage. It makes sense — if you’ve damaged ligaments or tendons, these injuries can weaken the support structure so that another trauma rips far more. Think about how differently a healthy tree and a damage tree weather a storm. So reflect a little bit about your medical condition before describing your history to your attorney. Were you truly fully recovered, or did you have a residual twinge that’s now out of control? Let him or her know.

7. KNOW YOUR PAST — DON’T MEMORIZE IT.

In this process, you aren’t required to remember every detail of your past; no one’s that smart, or lives their life as a notetaker. Disclose everything as best you can, but don’t get so tied up in dates or times that you come off as ‘scripted’. Give your best, honest recount of your medical history, and rely on your lawyer to help you over any factual bumps.

8. TRUST YOUR LAWYER TO TELL YOUR STORY.

Since few of us escape life without getting nicked up, almost all of us would have to deal with a prior injury as part of our medical history, and as part of presenting the claim. The area of ‘prior claims history’ or injury history is probably the greatest reason that your lawyer will add value to your claim. They’ll scour your record and, if reasonably skilled, will try to either minimize the effect of a prior injury by distinguishing it; demonstrating that it had already been well resolved; or, even better, using it to explain how the trauma of your current accident created so much damage to you or your life.

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FAQs, Interesting News and Law-Related Rants

Daniel Malis uses this blog to publish answers to frequently asked questions, convey interesting news and make the occasional law-related rant. If you have any questions or want to contact Daniel Malis, please see the Contact page of the MALIS|LAW Website.