Richmond, Virginia, Circuit Court, 2001
Richard N. Shapiro, Attorney
Donald Case, Investigator
Jackie Tilton, Paralegal
Mary Wareing, Legal Assistant
RS, an electrician, age 39, was injured during July 1997 while conducting electrical work inside an AT&T-owned building outside Richmond, Virginia. While working on the steps of the eight-foot fiberglass stepladder, RS suddenly was sent sprawling to the concrete floor due to a sudden fracture or split in the lower portion of the support side of the stepladder. He crashed to the ground suffering a major comminuted fracture to the tibial plateau of his left leg. The ladder was manufactured by Bauer Corporation during the late 1980's and was owned by AT&T of Virginia. RS had noticed the ladder on the wall in the very room where he and the co-worker were working, and they simply began using the ladder, believing they had implied or express permission from an AT&T manager who had also been working in the building. The broken ladder was tagged "Do Not Use" after the fall, and later expert examination revealed structural splits and fractures which appeared to originate near the foot of the "support side" of the ladder. Experts retained by WHS provided the opinion that the perimeter of the metal foot of the fiberglass ladder "step side" repetitively struck the fiberglass rail of the back or support side of the ladder which initiated and caused the fractures to spread, alleging this was negligent design. RS ultimately underwent significant internal fixation surgery with screws and plates to repair the multiple fractures to his tibial plateau, a second surgery to remove hardware, a third surgery to explore the knee joint, and RS may face future knee replacement. He will live with significant permanent impairment.
KEY LEGAL STRATEGY:
WHS sued Bauer on product liability theories and AT&T on general negligence grounds. WHS investigators located numerous prior injury claims involving similar Bauer fiberglass stepladders that failed in similar fashion. WHS intended to pursue "duty to warn" theories, concentrating on the fact that this ladder manufacturer sells only to businesses and has a much smaller consumer base to notify, but issued no warnings, though Bauer changed the ladder design to protect the ladder rails, after the product was sold but before RS's injury. Bauer denied all such claims. WHS also brought suit against AT&T, owner of the ladder, and retained an expert on OSHA regulations who asserted that AT&T had a duty to regularly and frequently inspect the ladder, but that AT&T failed in these responsibilities. AT&T denied Plaintiff had even implied permission to use the ladder and claimed OSHA standards were inapplicable. WHS retained or worked with an orthopaedic surgeon, a failure analysis expert, a vocational rehabilitation expert, and an economist.