Posted on Apr 14, 2006
Jury awards $4.2 million to teacher after tragic fall
Thursday, April 13, 2006
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Tessa Zanke, injured when she slipped on ice outside her Columbus apartment, can’t hold a pencil or drive because of burning pain in her arms.
With both arms curling inward from a rare nerve reaction to a broken arm she suffered in an icy fall three years ago, teacher Tessa Zanke can’t bear the pain of hugging her students.
She can’t hold a pencil or drive, and the burning pain will never go away, her attorney said yesterday.
For future pain and suffering and to cover medical costs, a Franklin County Common Pleas jury awarded the special-education teacher $4.2 million on Tuesday. It is one of the largest jury awards for a premises-liability case here, behind a 1999 jury award of $5.8 million to a 6-year-old girl who suffered permanent brain damage as a result of injuries at a local Kmart.
The civil trial, heard by Judge Charles A. Schneider, lasted three weeks.
Zanke is a teacher in Lexington, Ky., and now has help from a teacher’s aide. But district administrators say that because they cannot afford an aide for next year, they won’t renew Zanke’s contract.
Even with the help of an aide, "I left my classroom four or five times a day to cry in the rest room and ask God for relief from the pain," Zanke, 27, said yesterday.
"My life just changed right before my eyes. Before that happened, I was very active and was very much involved in volunteer work."
At the time of the fall, Zanke was just out of college and pursuing her childhood dream of teaching elementary students. She was unaware that residents were complaining to the management about ice at the Spring Creek Apartments near Rt. 161 and Cleveland Avenue.
Contractors at the 19-building complex had removed rain gutters on many of the buildings in order to replace siding. The work was to be completed by December 2002, but weather and costs pushed the project into the next year.
Ice from the pooling water accumulated on the walks and stairs around her building. On March 3, 2003, Zanke fell on a patch that was 4 feet wide and 3 inches thick.
The Village Green Management Co. knew of the dangers and had issued work orders to eliminate the ice, said James Arnold, Zanke’s attorney.
"One woman fell down 12 steps," he said. "A week before Tessa fell, another woman went into the management office and told them this "was an accident waiting to happen."
Zanke sued the management company and the apartment owners, CK Spring Creek Limited Liability Corp., for negligence.
Doctors who testified in the trial said Zanke’s right arm was broken and didn’t heal correctly. She developed a disorder known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, which results when a signal is sent to the brain to send more blood to an injured area. Her condition has spread to her left arm, causing a continuous burning sensation and hypersensitivity.
"It could happen to me or you," Arnold said. "She’ll ultimately end up with two nonfunctioning arms."
Michael Valentine and Al Mockhtari, attorneys for the defendants, argued that the ice was a natural accumulation for which the two companies could not be held responsible.
Arnold argued that the accident was preventable.
Valentine and Mockhtari said they will appeal the verdict. Valentine declined to comment yesterday.
Zanke was offered $60,000 in a pretrial settlement, Arnold said.
"I’ve had larger verdicts, but it’s a pretty big verdict by Franklin County standards," Arnold said. "These companies operate nationwide with about 25,000 units, and they are heavily insured."
He said Zanke will have to wait at least 18 months for the appeal to collect any of the money.
"My greatest fear is that I won’t be able to work with children again," Zanke said. "I have some decisions to make."