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Illinois jury finds for worker in scaffold suit

Plaintiff suffered back injuries from 3-foot fall

Angela Riley//May 2, 2010

Illinois jury finds for worker in scaffold suit

Plaintiff suffered back injuries from 3-foot fall

Angela Riley//May 2, 2010

A St. Clair County, Ill., jury awarded a former ironworker $1.1 million in his product liability claim against a scaffolding supplier.

On April 15, 2001, David Willett was working at the Baldwin Power Plant in Baldwin, Ill., refurbishing one of its boilers. His employer, Power Maintenance and Constructors, had a contract with the plant to refurbish its boiler. The plant was responsible for setting up and inspecting the scaffolding used for the project inside the cyclone.

Cyclones are 10-foot-round circular rooms within the plant that heat coal and make electricity for the power plant, said plaintiff attorney James O’Leary, Onder, Shelton, O’Leary & Peterson.

While in the cyclone, Willett stepped on the extension scaffolding, which collapsed. He fell 3 feet at an odd angle, O’Leary said, and landed on his back, injuring a nerve.

“Had he just fell straight down, he probably wouldn’t have been injured,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary argued that the extension scaffolding collapsed due to trusses made by Patent Construction Systems. The trusses supported the extension scaffolding, which covered the gap created by the crawlspace to enter and exit the cyclone. The gap was covered by a plank, which collapsed when Willett stepped on, O’Leary said.

O’Leary explained that the trusses were designed to help speed up the set up of the scaffolding. They had angular edges that could be inserted into the walls of the cyclone. Otherwise, the scaffolding would have to be set up manually with jacks, he said.

Willett alleged that Patent Construction was negligent for failing to provide instructions or warnings with the custom-made trusses, stating that extension scaffolding should not be attached to the custom trusses.

O’Leary said a key witness was Patent Construction’s own chief engineer, who testified in deposition that the company violated its own internal policies when it failed to provide to clients a layout on how to properly set up the scaffolding.

Willett also sued the Baldwin Power Plant and settled with it confidentially, O’Leary said.

Defense attorney John McMullin, of Brown & James, denied that Patent Construction even made the trusses, saying the plant created them.

“No one knows what the trusses were made of,” he said. “It was just a bunch of parts cut up and put together. We don’t know if the plant even used any of our parts.”

O’Leary did acknowledge that neither the power plant nor Patent Construction produced any invoices for the trusses.

“But that issue hurts the defense more than the plaintiff,” he said. “A reasonable person expects documentation when scaffolding is provided to a huge power plant. We had people at the plant testify that the trusses didn’t change.”

McMullin argued that the engineer only said one particular product should not be used with the trusses. He also cited the company’s excellent safety records.

“All our products have been used on 15,000 occasions, and no one has had one fall,” he said.

As a result of the fall, Willet underwent back fusion surgery and was placed on permanent lifting restrictions of 20 pounds. He had to quit his job as an ironworker. He now installs household alarms and stereo equipment in southern Illinois, O’Leary said.

McMullin has already filed a motion for new trial and a judgment notwithstanding the verdict and said he believes the verdict will be thrown out since Willett did not prove that Patent Construction made the trusses and that they caused his accident. He also said O’Leary objected to his submitting special interrogatories to the jury, which is a reversible error.

– Angela Riley

$1.1 million jury verdict

Products liability/negligence

Court: St. Clair County, Ill., Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 03-L-217/Feb. 16, 2010

Judge: Michael J. O’Malley

Plaintiff’s Experts: Matthew Gornet, St. Louis (orthopedic surgeon)

Defendant’s Experts: Russell Cantrell, St. Louis (physiatrist); John Jordan, San Antonio, (scaffolding safety)

Caption: David Willett v. Harsco Corp. d/b/a Patent Construction Systems

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: James O’Leary and James Corrigan, Onder, Shelton, O’Leary & Peterson, St. Louis; John Bell, Law Offices of Jim Bell, St. Louis

Defendant’s Attorneys: John McMullin and Demetra Sotiriou, Brown & James, St. Louis

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