$1,000,000 – Fatal Fall Case

The widow of a Russian immigrant who suffered a fatal fall down an elevator shaft in Trenton, N.J., will receive close to a combined $1 million in two separate settlement agreements in different jurisdictions.

The case stems from a Dec. 1, 1993, incident at an industrial building where Igor “Gary” Dvorkin, a Russian native who came to the United States in 1989, rented out a second-floor office space for his sportswear manufacturing business, according to his family’s attorney, Larry Bendesky of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky.

Dvorkin fell 14 feet after walking into the shaft from a dimly lit first-floor hallway. Bendesky said Dvorkin thought the elevator was on the first floor since he had tried unsuccessfully to open it on the second floor. He died minutes after the fall and his wife, Emilia, sought restitution for her loss.

The latest settlement in U.S. District Court in Trenton, for $400,000, came Friday –days before testimony was set to begin before Judge Mary Cooper – after lengthy discussions with two of the defendants, building landlord Hamilton Fidelco and building owner Donald Heft & Associates, both of Watchung, N.J. Heft owns Hamilton Fidelco.

Bendesky said he was prepared to argue that the building’s lighting was almost nonexistent on the first floor and that Hamilton Fidelco had failed to order an inspection of the elevator. Bendesky said Elamilton’s defense, led by Francis Donnelly of Crawshaw & Mayfield in Cherry Hill, N.J., argued that Dvorkin himself was at fault for not being careful enough before stepping into the shaft.

The defense also argued that Crane Doctors Inc. of Fairless Hills, the company hired to provide maintenance on the elevator, was liable for not providing proper services. Donnelly could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A court-appointed economist estimated that Dvorkin’s projected wages and values of service to his family were equivalent to $300,000. The two sides also agreed that Hamilton would pay an additional $100,000 for Dvorkin’s pain and suffering.

The Dvorkin estate reached a $522,500 settlement agreement with Crane Doctors and Peelle Co. of New York, the elevator manufacturer, in April 1998 after Peelle delayed the proceeding by attempting to have the case against it thrown out for two separate reasons. Peelle attorney Gary Turetsky of Bennett Bricklin & Saltzburg could not be reached for comment yesterday.

But Bendesky said Turetsky first argued that his client should not have to face a suit in Pennsylvania, because the company is based in New York and the accident happened in New Jersey. Bendesky countered by pointing out that his client was from Philadelphia and had the right to choose the venue. Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Pamela Prior Cohen ruled in Peelle’s favor, sending the Peelle case to New Jersey federal court.

While Bendesky appealed the jurisdictional question, Peelle successfully argued in New Jersey that it should not be liable for damages because of a statute of repose of 12 years for the elevator, which is over 50 years old.

In early 1998, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned the trial court’s decision and remanded the Peelle portion of the case to Pennsylvania. Bendesky said he quickly settled with Peelle, for only $62,500 because of the statute of repose question, and Crane Doctors for $460,000. Crane Doctors attorney Sean Kelly of Marks O’Neill Reilly & O’Brien could also not be reached for comment yesterday.

Bendesky said a key in the case was his ability to obtain expert witnesses to argue the case against each of the defendants.

“That allowed me to settle with each of the defendants so that the remaining experts could not be cross-examined by other defendants looking to pass off liability to another defendant,” he said.

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