Our Virginia personal injury client was 47 years old and working as a commercial airline pilot when he suffered a permanently disabling electric shock injury in a hotel room.
The pilot got shocked while showering in his room and washing his hair. The current paralyzed his arms above his head and knocked him unconscious. Falling inflicted severe bruising, and the electricity induced a racing heartbeat and mental confusion. He was subsequently unable to pass the federally mandated physical to resume working as an airline crew captain.
As soon as he was able to do so, the pilot called the hotel operator to report being “electrocuted.” A maintenance worker sent to investigate focused on the light fixture above the shower and told our Virginia personal injury client that it “doesn’t belong in that environment.” The maintenance worker then asked the hotel manager to close the room to all guests due to “electrical problems.”
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Our Virginia personal injury client got shocked in 2005. A year later, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in Taboada v. Daly Seven, Inc. that hotels have the same duty of care to guests that common carriers like bus companies have to passengers. The justices also stated that
the duty of care imposed on common carriers is an elevated duty that requires them “so far as human care and foresight can provide … to use the utmost care and diligence of very cautious persons; and they will be held liable for the slightest negligence which human care, skill and foresight could have foreseen and guarded against.” Given the nature of the special relationship between an innkeeper and a guest, we hold that it imposes on the innkeeper the same potential elevated duty of “utmost care and diligence.”
Our case for the injured pilot depended on enforcing this high legal duty to protect hotel guests. We also had to show how the electric shock occurred and why it happened as a result of the hotel owner’s negligence.
Electrical experts who reviewed the available facts concluded that our Virginia personal injury client inadvertently touched an exposed lightbulb while in the shower. The hotel’s legal team argued that such conclusions could not be supported by physical evidence because the electrical experts never inspected the light fixture.
At one point late in the legal proceedings, one of the hotel’s lawyers even floated the theory that the pilot never suffered any electric shock at all. Apparently hearing this for the first time during a pretrial hearing, the judge asked that lawyer if, since the man’s injuries could not be denied, he thought that the pilot had been struck by a lightning bolt.
What the hotel’s legal team did not mention, but which we pointed out, was that hotel staff did not preserve any of the physical evidence. The presumedly unsafe light fixture was replaced and disposed of at some point between the sealing of the hotel room and the month’s later date on which the pilot was allowed to reenter it with an investigator. The hotel did not even take pictures of the room, the shower, or the light fixture before making repairs.
Despite the lack of direct evidence to corroborate his account of what happened, the pilot was able to continue pursing his personal injury claim because civil courts are allowed to consider what is called res ipsa loquitor evidence. Very briefly, the fact that an accident occurred supports the inference that someone acted negligently in order to cause the accident.
Succeeding with the res ipsa loquitor argument in case required showing that only the hotel owner and the hotel staff ever had possession of the light fixture and access to its wiring. Our Virginia personal injury lawyer also had to show that that injured pilot did not tamper with the light fixture.
In 2008, the court handling this case ordered the hotel owner to start settlement negotiations. It took two extended sessions, but the hotel finally agreed to pay the pilot $1.5 million for all claims. Since the pilot had been a crew captain for a major commercial airline at the time of his electric shock injury but had since been declared permanently disabled, much of the settlement money accounted for lost lifetime earnings.
The legal principle of premises liability imposes a legal duty on property owners to protect the lives and health of visitors. Dangerous electrical fixtures violate that duty, which our Virginia personal injury law firm affirmed in this case.
Courts and Dates: Virginia, 2005-2008
Staff: Richard N. Shapiro, attorney