A Baltimore County middle school janitor won a $537,000 verdict Wednesday after the woman injured her ankle in a fall into a trench in the electrical closet during a power outage at the school.
The Baltimore City Circuit Court jury awarded Rachel Bell $151,000 for her medical bills, $62,000 for past lost wages and $324,000 in non-economic damages, an amount that is not subject to the state’s cap on such damages.
Bell, 38, worked as a janitor at Holabird Middle School in Dundalk. On Oct. 6, 2007, she was working the night shift, cleaning the boys’ bathroom when the power went out in the building.
When she called her supervisor to ask what she should do, her boss told her to go into the electrical closet with a flashlight to try to restore power to the building.
Workers from Key Systems Inc., an independent electrical contractor for the school, had been working in the electrical closet earlier in the day, a Friday, pulling wires out of the trench on the floor.
When they left for the day at 2 p.m., they decided to leave the trench uncovered because they had planned on returning the following day to do some more work, according to Ronald V. Miller, Bell’s attorney.
But Bell did not know that the trench was open and, fumbling around in the dark, she fell into it, suffering a severe ankle fracture that left her ankle bones pushing out through the back of her foot, said Miller, of Miller & Zois LLC.
“Key Systems was trying to blame Rachel and blame the school,” Miller said. “They were saying ‘You should just sit around and wait. Don’t go into an electric room that you’ve never been in in the dark.’”
But the jury, which deliberated for less than three hours following a three-day trial, sided with Bell, determining that it was not reasonable to expect that there could be a hole in the floor of the closet just because it was dark and Bell could not see.
Kristine R. Zenkewicz, an attorney with Baltimore-based Franklin & Prokopik PC, who represented Key Systems’ insurer, Cincinnati Insurance, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Miller said he had three experts testify in the trial — Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center orthopedic surgeon Ronald P. Byank; Richard Zorowitz, chief of Bayview’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation; and Stanley D. Pulz, a workplace safety consultant. He said the defense called Louis S. Halikman, an orthopedic surgeon and consultant with Mercy Medical Center, as an expert.
Bell was able to sue White Marsh-based Key Systems because it was a contractor with the school and not a school employee. Had another employee left the trench open, resulting in Bell’s fall, she would have had to file a workers’ compensation claim, according to Miller.
Miller said Bell has worked hard to recover, although her doctor said she could have stayed out of work and received a disability check. Three years after her accident, Bell returned to work as a janitor, although not at Holabird, because they do not have an elevator and she could not get around using the stairs.
BELL V. KEY SYSTEMS INC.
Baltimore City Circuit
John Philip Miller
Incident: Oct. 6, 2007
Suit filed: July 23, 2010
Disposition: Aug. 17, 2011
Ronald V. Miller and Laura Zois of Miller & Zois LLC
Kristine Zenkewicz of Franklin & Prokopik PC