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.