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Restaurant carbon monoxide case closes

Brendan Kearney//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer//July 26, 2010

Restaurant carbon monoxide case closes

By Brendan Kearney

//Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer

//July 26, 2010

The owner and operator of the Pier 5 hotel admit there was a carbon monoxide leak at the Ruth’s Chris restaurant in February 2008, but deny it caused permanent injury to the workers.
The owner and operator of the Pier 5 hotel admit there was a carbon monoxide leak at the Ruth’s Chris restaurant in February 2008, but deny it caused permanent injury to the workers.

After hearing a day of caustic closing arguments from lawyers in the case of 20 downtown Baltimore restaurant workers poisoned with carbon monoxide, the city circuit court jury that has considered the potentially mega-million-dollar award for nearly three months will begin deliberations Tuesday morning.

Since the defendant Pier 5 hotel owner and operator have essentially conceded liability, all that remains to be seen is how much the panel will award: the unspecified “fair and reasonable compensation” for “temporary” symptoms suggested by the defense or the $7.5 million per plaintiff — in addition to future medical expenses and lost wages — suggested by William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. to compensate for their permanent brain damage.

Their differing valuation of the case was not the only thing that distinguished Murphy and law partner Mary McNamara-Koch from defense attorney Y. Kevin Williams on Monday.

In his morning remarks, Murphy compared his plaintiffs’ experience to participating in a science experiment overseen by the Devil, in which they would be told their memories, personalities and other cognitive functions would be ruined.

Williams objected, as both sides did multiple times, and Murphy eventually continued.

“How much would the plaintiffs charge for taking that trip down life’s path?” Murphy asked. “There was no negotiation here about price. It was imposed on them. They didn’t deserve it. … Now they are forced to live with it.”

Williams, the Atlanta defense attorney representing owner TPOB Pier Five LLC and operator Meyer Jabara Hotels LLC, admitted at the outset that mistakes were made; he focused his hour-long PowerPoint presentation on the severity of the plaintiffs’ injuries.

“The carbon monoxide got out, and it should not have,” he said.

Going through the restaurant-employee plaintiffs one by one, Williams noted that many have been promoted in their new jobs or begun new careers since the poisoning on Feb. 2, 2008; others, he pointed out, had health problems unrelated to their exposure.

“Is the measure of a person … just the fact that they can go to work?” McNamara-Koch asked at one point.

McNamara-Koch’s alphabetical review of the plaintiffs centered on how the toxic gas poisoning had affected them. Many said they were not the same people as they were before the exposure at the Ruth’s Chris in early 2008. Others’ family members reported irritability and forgetfulness.

“‘I felt like after the exposure everything kind of went downhill for me,’” McNamara-Koch read from plaintiff Adina Henson’s testimony, which appeared in a PowerPoint on a flat-screen monitor.

McNamara-Koch said her 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.

Whereas Murphy and McNamara-Koch noted the defense had paid one of its experts more than $360,000 over the course of the case, Williams made a point that one of the plaintiffs’ designated experts, the first doctor to see them after they were released from the hospital, testified that they cannot have permanent brain damage since they did not lose consciousness.

“You’re right,” McNamara-Koch said. “We don’t want her as our expert. Because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

The gloves were off.

McNamara-Koch attacked how Williams called two of her plaintiffs “sweet.”

“What the defense is saying in this case … is that every one of these people is a liar,” she said.

Minutes later, Murphy picked up the ball, calling the Atlanta lawyer’s argument “southern style.”

He said Williams and his team traveled to Baltimore to call Murphy’s clients dishonest.

“That’s what they do,” Murphy said. “Very good, Mr. Williams.”

To the jury, he said, “I pray that you can see through this smokescreen of picking and choosing.”

Murphy said the liability of the defendants is so clear he was “embarrassed” to have to argue it.

“It’s so obvious. The evidence is overwhelming that it was their fault,” he said. “You know it, I know it, they know it.”


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