Posted on Mar 19, 2006
Student awarded $15.8M for fall into manhole
She claimed permanent injury after stumbling into uncovered hole on Union College campus in 2003
By MICHELE MORGAN BOLTON, Staff writer
First published: Saturday, March 18, 2006
TROY -- A Rensselaer County jury has awarded $15.8 million to a young woman who was permanently injured in 2003 when she fell into a manhole at Union College.
The six jurors deliberated briefly following three days of medical expert testimony in the trial before state Supreme Court Justice Michael Lynch.
Mary Ann Nolan, 24, was a Union College senior on Jan. 26, 2003, when she walked across a dark parking lot on the Schenectady campus and plunged hip-deep into the hole. On Thursday, the Rensselaer resident was awarded $300,000 for past pain and suffering, $7.5 million for future pain and suffering, and $8 million for future medical costs, said her lawyer, Peter Moschetti.
A separate amount for past medical expenses was agreed upon earlier, he said.
"I'm really happy for her," said Moschetti. "She's just a very nice kid."
The award also is good for her parents' peace of mind, he added. "They were worried about what would happen to her when they were no longer around."
Spokesman Phillip Wajda said college officials regret the injury Nolan suffered on their campus.
"We certainly want her to recover and not be burdened with costs associated with this unfortunate incident," Wajda said.
"However, we fully expect the verdict to be set aside and the matter to be tried in front of a different jury," he added.
A Union College official said that the college plans to appeal.
Opinions are divided on whether such large awards are appropriate.
A 2004 Insurance Reform Council study says many Americans think the incidence of personal injury and class-action lawsuits and the magnitude of their awards have become excessive.
Nearly two out of three respondents in a national tort study said states should limit pain and suffering awards in personal injury lawsuits.
Yet the move has stalled in New York, and elsewhere.
"The world wants tort reform, but because the trial bar doesn't, you can just forget about it," said Mark Alesse, director of New Yorkers for Civil Justice Reform.
There will always be real negligence cases and access to the courts for redress, but for the others, it's just too easy to sue, Alesse said.
If you're an upright institution with deep pockets, "you should prepare to get hammered..." he said. "The impact is serious. Whatever they are paying in annual insurance will skyrocket."
Specific testimony about Nolan's accident never reached jurors' ears because college officials had already admitted negligence, Moschetti said. Nor were jurors given guidance about how much to award.
Testimony would have showed that a plow scraped off the manhole cover sometime earlier that January. And it wasn't found until the snow melted, he said. In the interim, college maintenance workers stuck a piece of plywood over the gap as a temporary fix, but it wasn't covering the manhole that day, he said.
So who's to say how much is enough?
Nolan had an existing leg problem before the Union accident. But it had been brought under control, her lawyer said: "She was free and clear. So she was the worst possible person for this to happen to."
Now she must inject herself in the abdomen every day with an anticoagulant to combat deep vein thrombosis, Moschetti said. And she will live with constant pain in her lower legs as well as difficulty sitting, standing or walking for any length of time.
Nolan, who graduated with a political science degree, is currently concentrating on getting a job. "She's strong. And very determined," Moschetti said. "I think that's why the jury liked her, too."