Steakhouse workers get $34M for carbon monoxide poisoning
Posted: 2:04 pm Wed, July 28, 2010
Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
A Baltimore jury has awarded nearly $34 million to 20 restaurant workers who suffered carbon-monoxide poisoning at the Pier 5 Hotel in early 2008 and gave another half-million dollars to three of their spouses.
“We’re delighted,” said William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr., one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, minutes after the jury forewoman answered “yes” to every single liability question and had courtroom observers tallying the total damages. “It was a great victory for these people who didn’t deserve what happened to them.”
The owner and operator of the downtown waterfront hotel conceded responsibility for the February 2008 leak at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House during trial, but their attorney said the plaintiffs should receive unspecified “fair and reasonable compensation” for “temporary” symptoms.
In his closing argument Monday, Murphy, wearing pin stripes and his signature braid, asked the jury for $7.5 million for each plaintiff to compensate them for the effects of permanent brain damage, which ranged from forgetfulness to depression.
While the plaintiffs, who now work at the Ruth’s Chris, Sullivan’s Steakhouse or in new careers, asked for future medical expenses and lost wages, the defense claimed those amounts should be zero because the workers had claimed no such damages in the past.
Murphy said the defendants had been “playing dice with people’s lives” by being “asleep at the switch” and compared his plaintiffs’ experience to participating in a diabolical science experiment against their will.
(Editor’s Note: For a list of damage awards, as well as links to prior coverage of this lawsuit in The Daily Record, scroll to the bottom of the story.)
The verdict came after almost three months of trial in the city circuit court and a day and a half of jury deliberation.
The jury of three men and three women — four black, two white — found hotel owner TPOB Pier Five LLC and operator Meyer Jabara Hotels LLC each liable for negligence and an intentional public nuisance. It also found the operator liable for battery, an intentional tort. (Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion threw out claims for punitive damages at the end of the plaintiffs’ case earlier this month.)
The damages to each plaintiff ranged from about $11,000 to $1 million for future medical expenses; from zero to $1.147 million for future lost earnings; and from $285,000 to $3.75 million for pain and suffering. Three spouses of the plaintiffs were also awarded damages for injuries to their marital relationship, $385,000 for one couple and $75,000 for the other two.
The damages will not be capped because they were based on intentional torts, plaintiff attorney Mary V. McNamara-Koch said.
After the verdict, a few of the jurors mixed with the attorneys in the case, exchanging pleasantries and discussing how they decided the case.
“We weren’t sure as to the damages,” Latreace Parris told the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “That was our struggle.”
Parris had special praise for McNamara-Koch, a former prosecutor who left Peter Angelos’ firm early last year to join Murphy P.A. Parris said while Murphy was “funny,” McNamara-Koch “cracked the whip.” She called her “the dragon.”
“Miss Koch is the real reason they got that,” Parris said of the verdict.
Forewoman Sabrena Valentine, who wore a Yankees jersey Wednesday, said she “didn’t know what CO was until I came here.”
None of the plaintiffs was in court Wednesday afternoon, but two spoke to The Daily Record by phone shortly thereafter.
Luis Portillo, one of the handful who still work at the Ruth’s Chris, at first seemed unmoved by the news that he had been awarded $2.11 million but eventually said he is “very happy” and “very excited.”
Portillo, who lives with his wife and son in Baltimore, said he has been having “a lot of problems” since he inhaled the toxic gas in early 2008 and hopes he will now be able to receive treatment. Maybe the verdict can help him realize a lifelong goal, too, he said.
“I’ve always been thinking about having my own business,” Portillo said. “I have to hold on, keep working and see what I can come up with.”
Reached at Sullivan’s Steakhouse shortly after the verdict was announced, plaintiff Sascha Schwieman was speechless at the news.
“Wow,” Schwieman said, laughing nervously, when told the jury had awarded him $1.14 million and his wife, Beth, $75,000.
“I don’t even really know what to say. Wow,” he said, before hanging up the phone to get back to work.
Exhaust from boilers
Y. Kevin Williams, the lead defense attorney with a southern accent and a nervous manner, did not return multiple messages Wednesday afternoon asking about the possibility of an appeal. Williams and several colleagues from the Atlanta office of Weinberg Wheeler Hudgins Gunn & Dial LLC spent much of the summer in Baltimore, accompanied by a consultant who sat behind them with a full suite of computers and printer.
A “shadow jury” retained by the defense, which dutifully watched each day of the trial, was not in court this week for closing arguments or to hear the jury’s findings.
Larry Noto, director of marketing for Harbor Magic Hotels, which operates the Pier 5 Hotel as part of Danbury, Conn.-based Meyer Jabara, did not return messages seeking comment on Wednesday’s court result.
Trial began in the first week of May and featured testimony from plaintiffs, their friends and family, hotel higher-ups and experts from all over the country.
At trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argued the defendants’ hot-water boilers spewed the exhaust into the Ruth’s Chris on the property and that it could have been prevented if the hotel walls had been properly sealed or a required safety interlock system were in place. (The defendants sued Ruth’s Chris in turn, but that case was dismissed.)
According to their closing arguments, responding firefighters detected carbon monoxide levels of nearly 700 parts per million — several times the 100 parts per million that compels building evacuation. According to the plaintiffs, the leak had predated the evacuation by weeks.
Williams, the defense attorney, made sure to mention during his closing argument Monday that Dr. Margit Bleecker was the only doctor who had seen the plaintiffs right after the incident and in the months thereafter.
“They never wanted you to hear from her,” Williams said of the plaintiffs’ lawyers. “They realized she would not say what they wanted.”
“You’re right,” McNamara-Koch said minutes later. “We don’t want her as our expert. Because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
Williams had asked the jury to decide the case on the evidence, not on sympathy.
“The carbon monoxide got out and it should not have,” he admitted more than once, but went on to attack the plaintiffs’ experts as professional witnesses and downplay the plaintiffs’ injuries as temporary.
Murphy and McNamara-Koch shot back that the defense was itself not being honest and that it was calling the plaintiffs liars, albeit “southern-style.”
McNamara-Koch said the plaintiffs’ injuries are not immediately apparent, even to their spouses or friends.
“A lot of people don’t understand, but you all do,” McNamara-Koch said to the jury.