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Fairfax jury awards $4.75M for brain injury from fireworks show

The deafening explosion of a wayward fireworks rocket caused devastating injuries for a Northern Virginia mother and led to a $4.75 million jury verdict against the fireworks company that staged the 2007 Independence Day show in Vienna, Va.

The Nov. 12 verdict for Kathryn Hollis came after a four-week trial involving extensive use of video and PowerPoint presentations in one of the new high-tech courtrooms in Fairfax County, according to Hollis’ attorney, Scott A. Surovell of Fairfax. He said he used 160 slides in his rebuttal closing argument.

Surovell said there’s a pending claim on behalf of Hollis’ son, Max, now 7, who also suffered traumatic brain injury in the blast. Max’s claim may target not just the fireworks company, Schaefer Pyrotechnics of Pennsylvania, but also the town of Vienna and Fairfax County, localities that were involved in presenting the annual fireworks display.

Hollis, 39, was injured when a box of linked fireworks fell over, sending a mortar zooming into a crowd of people watching the fireworks show at an elementary school. The rocket carried a powerful charge designed to make a loud boom as part of the fireworks grand finale. The rocket hit one man, knocking him over, and then exploded next to Hollis as she held the 3-year-old Max on her lap.

“Katy” Hollis endured a broken arm, ruptured eardrums and a traumatic brain injury that left her unable to remember ordinary household procedures.

“This is someone who used to be an event planner who now can’t make an appetizer without someone holding her hand every step of the way,” Surovell said.

Max took the force of the blast in his face, Surovell said. Doctors induced a coma for three days to treat his brain injury. The extent of the damage won’t be known until his early teens, according to Surovell.

The case against Schaefer centered on the use of so-called “finale boxes,” where up to 25 rockets are clustered in one container and wired together with timed fuses.

Similar accidents involving the same type of fireworks box occurred at about 30 other Schaefer shows on the same night, four of them in Northern Virginia, Surovell said. The incident in Vienna was the only one to result in serious injury, according to news reports.

Surovell said he used more than 70 Freedom of Information Act requests to document problems with fireworks and the way they were used by the company, run by owner Kimmel Schaefer. “Our position was that he knew these boxes blew up a lot, and, because he knew they blew up a lot, he should have taken additional measures to protect the crowd from them,” Surovell said.

A call for comment to Francis J. Prior Jr., counsel for Schaefer, was not returned as of press time.

Hollis’ medical bills and lost earning capacity were estimated at $1.9 million. Surovell said he asked the jury for $7 million. In addition to the $4.75 million verdict for Katy Hollis, the jury awarded $45,000 to her older son, Alex. He had been slightly injured in the blast, with medical bills of around $2,500.

Surovell said he made extensive use of diffusion tensor imaging, a medical study that produces color images of the brain to illustrate his client’s brain injuries for the jury. He said the process showed areas of Hollis’ brain where there was no longer any neural activity. He said a physician presented a 10-minute video “where he walked the jury through my client’s brain.”

“It was high-tech stuff, very persuasive,” he said. “This is going to affect her for the rest of her life. That’s what made it significant.”

Joseph Cammarata, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represented another family of victims of the 2007 fireworks mishap, said he settled his clients’ claims for amounts he declined to disclose. Neither involved brain injury or multiple surgeries, he said.

Peter Vieth writes for Virginia Lawyers Weekly, a sister publication of The Daily Record.