Think Construction Trials are a Waste of Time? Not so fast.
At the time of the incident, the client was a ceiling installer working on a contract basis in Redwood City, California. Ceiling installers primarily work with drywall, ceiling tiles, and wallboard, and may be involved in both installation and painting. They may also be union workers – the client was part of a local carpenter’s union at the time of the accident. The incident occurred on May 31, 2014, when the client was working on a tenant improvement project.
During the project, the client was using a small Perry scaffold, which can be quickly moved from place to place inside buildings, allowing for targeting work on ceiling components. While the client was working on the scaffold, it slipped into a 6-inch diameter hole located in the concrete floor. Because the floor had already been carpeted by a different sub-contractor, the client could not see the hole when positioning the scaffold.
As the scaffold tipped, the client lost his balance and fell about three feet. Immediate injuries included cervical and lumbar sprains as well as a rotator cuff rupture in his shoulder. The rotator cuff eventually required two surgeries and significant recuperation time, which caused him to lose his promising career as a ceiling installer.
As with many construction accidents, liability proved both extremely important and challenging to decide. The manufacturers of the products involved, the sub-contractors who had done previous work on the building, and the client himself were all potentially liable: When the suit was filed, the defendants named were the electrical subcontractor and the carpet subcontractor who had done work on the tenant building before the client had started on the project.
However, the defendants proved to be utterly inflexible regarding a resolution to the suit. Insured by Liberty Mutual and State Farm respectively, the defendants made a combined offer of $15,000 to settle the suit, and refused to budge from that amount. As a result, the case eventually went to trial and was tried before a jury.
Going to Trial
It is common for these types of contractor cases to be settled outside of court, and rare that they are tried in front of a jury. However, due to the defendants’ refusal to engage in any meaningful form of settlement, the client and Appel Law Firm felt that going to trial was the most viable option. The trial judge was Judge Freedman.
Presenting the Evidence
This type of suit presented several challenges regarding a jury trial, primarily because of the regulations involved. With no guarantee that the jury would understand Cal-OHSA requirements for floor construction, or the obligations of the various subcontractors involved, it looked like a trial full of tedious explanations. Appel Law Firm decided to help clarify matters by focusing on two key areas: Failure to follow proper construction safety codes, and the expenses/losses suffered by the client.
- Failure to follow construction safety: The electrical subcontractor was the one who had drilled the core hole into the floor. These holes were required for the project, but according to construction safety requirements they had to be covered with a specific sort of cover to prevent accidents. The electrical subcontractor failed to install this or any cover over the hole. The carpet subcontractor arrived and covered the hole with new carpet, also failing to install the required cover. This was admitted by both the defendants and the safety expert they called.
- Client expenses and losses: Vocational experts and an economist submitted reports that estimated economic losses for the client at $675,000, due to time lost away from work, the loss of his job, and the loss of experience in the evolving construction industry. Medical expenses were estimated at $33,000 for past expenses and $35,000 for future expenses.. The work comp lien was $133,000. These numbers stood in stark contrast to the $15,000 offered by the defendants and their insurance companies, which they refused to negotiate on.
In a 12-0 decision, the jury found in favor of the client regarding negligence and causation, with liability apportioned 45% to each defendant and 10% to the client (for not locking the wheels of the scaffold). The employer was found to be 0% at fault. The sum decided was $1.32 million – a far cry from the $15,000 that the defendants’ had offered.