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$17.5 Million Agreement Reached in Philadelphia Construction Accident Case


Posted on Feb 17, 2006

$17.5 Million Agreement Reached in Construction Accident Case Asher Hawkins The Legal Intelligencer 02-17-2006 Printer-friendly Email this Article Reprints & Permissions Settlements totaling $17.5 million have been reached in a case filed in state court in Philadelphia over a construction accident in an elevator shaft that left one laborer dead and another with permanent brain damage and other physical injuries. The settlement sum in the case is the third largest to be reported in the past 18 months by The Legal in conjunction with matters filed in state or federal courts in Pennsylvania. (The $17.5 million settlement knocks out of the No. 3 spot a $16.18 million settlement in late 2004 in another case stemming from an elevator shaft workplace injury in which Pansini & Mezrow, counsel in the instant case, also served as plaintiffs counsel.) Robert Bruce and Thomas Stinson were both 35-year-old members of the Elevator Constructors Local 5 in January 2001 when the scaffolding they were working on gave way, causing them to fall roughly 30 feet to the shaft pit below, according to court papers in Bruce v. Uniwest Construction Inc. Stinson died the day after the accident, and Bruce suffered injuries to his head, shoulder and back. Bruce and Stinson's survivors filed suit against the general contractor for the construction project, the owner of the building on which the work was being done and two companies involved in the purchase of the lumber allegedly used to make the scaffolding. Plaintiffs attorney Michael Pansini of Pansini & Mezrow in Philadelphia said the settlements were reached over the course of the past week. Pansini said that the general contractor, Uniwest, settled with the plaintiffs for $9.5 million; both the lumber-related defendants, J.T. Riley Inc. -- which sold a set of wood planks to the plaintiffs' elevator construction company -- and Strober Haddonfield Group -- which originally purchased the wood planks and sold them to J.T. Riley -- settled for $3 million; and the retirement community that owns the Center City building being worked on at the time also settled for $2 million. Due to a confidentiality agreement, Pansini was unable to name the retirement community directly. However, the only defendant in Bruce referred to in court papers as a retirement community is the Fountains at Logan Square, which is located at 17th and Callowhill streets. According to Pansini, Stinson's survivors will receive $3.5 million of the total settlement figure, while Bruce will receive $14 million. None of the defense attorneys in Bruce who were contacted by The Legal responded yesterday to calls seeking comment. The defendants contended in court papers that neither Bruce nor Stinson was wearing "fall arrest protection" at the time of the accident, despite being experienced elevator construction workers. The plaintiffs countered in court papers that at the time of the accident, the pair was working on a shaft alignment problem that was holding up the entire construction project, and that the area of the shaft they were repairing was not at that time equipped to accommodate workers' fall safety gear. They also said they would be able to present testimony indicating that Bruce and Stinson were ordered to do the work without safety lines due to time constraints. The defendants also asserted individual arguments against liability. Uniwest stated in court papers that, as the general contractor for the Fountains at Logan Square project that subcontracted the elevator shaft work to Bruce and Stinson's company, it should be considered the pair's statutory employer. Strober Haddonfield and J.T. Riley noted in court papers that the lumber delivered to the Fountains at Logan Square site was not marked as usable for scaffolding, and that there was not any evidence that the wood secured for the work site by the two companies was even used on the scaffolding that gave way on the day Bruce and Stinson were injured. Counsel for the Fountains at Logan Square wrote in court papers that Uniwest, as general contractor, was responsible for work performed at the site, including safety procedures with respect to subcontractors. A number of defendants originally named in Bruce were released from the matter relatively early on, Pansini said. The architectural and construction firms involved in the construction project both settled for $75,000, he said, and a group of over a dozen wood mills thought to be possible sources of the allegedly defective wood planks were let out of the case. The plaintiffs' original demand was for $20 million overall. In late December 2005, defense motions for summary judgment were filed with Judge Jacqueline F. Allen, who ultimately denied those motions in late January, according to Pansini. Meanwhile, he said, the retirement community and the two lumber-related defendants began mediation with the plaintiffs before Edward Edelstein at ADR Options Inc. in early January. Pansini said he demanded $10 million from that group of three defendants. That mediation was not fruitful; he declined to comment on what amount Edelstein had recommended the case against the three be settled for. After Allen denied the defendants' summary judgment motions, J.T. Riley approached the plaintiffs about the possibility of settling for $3 million, the total amount available under that company's insurance policies, Pansini said. On Feb. 2, the plaintiffs, the retirement community and the two lumber-related defendants went back before Edelstein for a second mediation attempt. During those talks, Pansini said, the plaintiffs were offered a $4.5 million package: $3 million from J.T. Riley, $1 million from the retirement community and $500,000 from Strober Haddonfield. The plaintiffs rejected that offer. Later on in the day on Feb. 2, Pansini said, the plaintiffs informed Uniwest that they were demanding $10 million from that company individually, and asked that it respond with an offer within five days. On Feb. 7, he said, Uniwest settled for $9.5 million. At about the same time, he said, the plaintiffs entered into an agreement with J.T. Riley under which, irrespective of any jury verdict, the company would pay the plaintiffs $3 million. The plaintiffs also agreed with J.T. Riley that they would only present at trial lumber-related evidence pertaining to Strober Haddonfield, Pansini said, and withdraw their punitive damages claim against J.T. Riley. Finally, J.T. Riley agreed that if the plaintiffs subsequently settled with Strober Haddonfield, J.T. Riley would not go after Strober Haddonfield for contributions or indemnity. The purpose of that portion of the agreement, Pansini said, was to give Strober Haddonfield an incentive to settle. Shortly before jury selection began on Feb. 10 with Judge Patricia A. McInerney presiding, the retirement community settled for $2 million, he said. On Monday, arguments on motions in limine were held before McInerney. Later in the day, he said, a representative from Strober Haddonfield's excess coverage carrier contacted him about the possibility of settling for $1.75 million. The plaintiffs rejected that offer. Pansini said that he was prepared to give his opening argument Tuesday morning when McInerney oversaw one last round of settlement talks and asked if the plaintiffs would be willing to settle with Strober Haddonfield for $3 million. Pansini agreed. Pansini said that his partner Steve Mezrow handled discovery in Bruce and that fellow firm members Gregory Kowalski and Kathleen Kirkpatrick also assisted in the matter. The defense attorneys in the case were: James Lynn of Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata, for Uniwest; Thomas Kuzmick of Rawle & Henderson, for Strober Haddonfield; Robert Mulhern Jr. of Swartz Campbell, for J.T. Riley; and Kathleen Wilkinson of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker, for the retirement community. Pansini complimented the zealous advocacy of all the defense attorneys, and applauded those who presided over the various hearings in the case. "It really took three brilliant minds to get this case resolved -- Judge Allen, Judge McInerney and Ed Edelstein at ADR Options," he said. Pansini said he hails from a family with many members involved in construction work and is pleased to have been involved in the past two years in two cases that have resulted in significant settlements for severely injured construction workers or their survivors. "It feels great to have ... hopefully sent a message that on construction sites, construction worker safety is the single most important issue and must never be disregarded," he said.

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