Posted on Nov 24, 2005
Jury awards ex-engineer $5M for injury
Thursday, November 24, 2005 - Bangor Daily News << Back
BANGOR - A Maine Maritime Academy graduate left the federal courthouse on Tuesday acting like he'd lost instead of won more than $5 million in damages.
The jury of seven women and three men awarded Bruce Falconer, 43, of Waterville a sum of $2.6 million in future medical costs and $2.4 million in lost and future wages from his former employer, Penn Maritime of New York.
The jury, however, awarded the former marine engineer just $100,000 for pain and suffering.
The jurors announced their verdict after deliberating for 31/2 hours following 15 days of testimony in a bitter legal battle between out-of-state attorneys that frequently tried the patience of the court.
The jousting of the opposing legal teams appeared at times to leave the plaintiff sidelined and forgotten as attorneys argued over precedents and points of law.
The jury also reduced the award by 35 percent to about $3.25 million after deciding that Falconer's negligence contributed to the accident by that amount. It also denied prejudgment interest on the funds.
Falconer and his wife, Lee, held hands as the verdict was read and appeared stunned by the $100,000 award for pain and suffering.
The couple referred questions about the verdict to Falconer's attorneys, Carolyn Latti and David Anderson of Boston. The attorneys declined to comment as they left the courthouse on Tuesday and efforts to reach them Wednesday were unsuccessful.
The former marine engineer sued Penn Maritime three years ago in U.S. District Court in New York for injuries that left him a paraplegic five years ago. The case was moved earlier this year to federal court in Bangor.
"Bruce Falconer was a good employee," James Sweeney, vice president of operations for Penn Maritime," said after the verdict. "I wish him the best."
Sweeney represented the company at the trial.
U.S. District Judge John Woodcock described the trial as "long, difficult and arduous" moments before the jury delivered its verdict. It also was very emotional.
Several times during the three-week trial, including during closing arguments, Lee Falconer broke down in sobs and had to leave the courtroom to compose herself.
Bruce Falconer and other family members also wept openly when his medical condition and the activities he can no longer take part in were described.
Falconer spent most of his career working on the Valiant, the vessel on which he was injured, after graduating from the maritime academy in Castine in 1984. Although ownership of the tugboat changed several times, Falconer continued to work on it.
The ex-marine engineer suffered a spinal cord injury on July 30, 2000, while working on the Valiant, owned by Penn Maritime. The tugboat was in dry dock for repairs in Tampa, Fla., when the accident occurred.
Falconer fell through an open hatch while he was carrying a large box that contained an engine part. He dropped about 14 feet to the lower engine room floor. The son of retired Maine State Trooper Paul Falconer, 71, of Winslow, suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the midchest down.
He claimed that Penn Maritime was negligent because the boat's captain did not install safety rails around the hatch opening. Penn Maritime argued that the company was not negligent because Falconer, rather than the captain or the other employee who was on board that Sunday, was responsible for installing the safety rails.
The three-week trial began on Nov. 1 and testimony ended early Monday afternoon. Closing arguments and the judge's instructions to the jury on Tuesday took nearly four hours.
Woodcock told the jury that to win his case Falconer had to prove that:
. Penn Maritime was negligent.
. His former employer was the legal cause of his injury.
. The tugboat was unseaworthy.
. The unseaworthy condition was the legal cause of the accident.
In this case, "unseaworthy" meant that Penn Maritime did not fulfill its legal duty to keep the Valiant reasonably suitable for its intended use, Woodcock said.
The jury found that the company was negligent and that the Valiant was not unseaworthy.
In her closing argument on Tuesday, Carolyn Latti, Falconer's Boston attorney, told the jury that experts estimated Falconer's future lost earnings at about slightly less than $1 million and his future medical expenses between $1.6 and $2.5 million depending on how long he lives.
The jury awarded him more than twice that amount in wages and anticipated that he would need medical care into his 70s.
Penn Maritime's attorney, Joseph Stearns of New York, told the jury that Falconer pursued the case to trial for "more." He described Falconer's position as: "I want more."
The firm paid Falconer's medical bills until 2003, and continues to pay for his health insurance, according to court documents.
Woodcock told the jury that Penn Maritime also had paid Falconer $345,600 to build a handicapped-accessible home; $45,000 for a handicapped-accessible van with hand controls; $6,600 for exercise equipment; and $82,300 in wages.
At several points during the trial, the judge expressed irritation and sometimes anger, with the out-of-state attorneys' courtroom sparing and acrimony.
Both sides made numerous objections to preserve for possible appeals over the course of the trial, including after the jury instructions had been read,
In thanking the jurors, a majority of whom appeared to be under 35, for their service, Woodcock quoted the Bill of Rights. The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to trial by jury in civil lawsuits.
"Civil cases like this are a central part of what we as Americans stand for," Woodcock said. "This right can only be exercised when people like you participate. You breathed life into our Bill of Rights. ... When I sit down at Thanksgiving, I will give thanks that the ideals that our veterans fought for are being preserved by people like you."