$2,400,000 – Worker Who Fell from Defective Lift

A plaintiff left with brain injuries, orthopedic injuries, and post-traumatic vertigo as the result of a work accident settled with multiple defendants for $2.44 million. Peter Kuzer fell 20 feet and landed on his head in 1996 when the bucket of an aerial lift he was working in turned upside-down, dumping him to the ground.

Among the many injuries Kuzer suffered were a subdural hematoma, a broken sternum, left clavicle and rib, and hairline fractures at the base of his skull. He also sustained hemorrhagic contusions of the right temporal lobe and cerebellum.

In an unusual pairing, Robert J. Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky worked to represent the plaintiff with Steven G. Wigrizer of Wapner Newman & Wigrizer, his close friend of nine years.

“We’re normally competitors, but the client interviewed both of us and decided he liked us both and wanted both firms on the case,” said Wigrizer, who also brought in Wapner Newman associate Roberta A. Rosenblum on the case. As neighbors, Mongeluzzi and Wigrizer had extra time to discuss the case during their morning workouts together at Mongeluzzi’s Villanova home.

“Steve lives three houses away from me,” said Mongeluzzi. “It’s nice to handle a case with one of your best friends.”

Kuzer sued multiple defendants including Helac, the manufacturer of the rotary actuator to which the bucket was mounted; Aero-Lift, who sold the actuator; Baker Engineering, who repaired it; Fischbach Corp., the parent company of Kuze’s employer Fischbach & Moore, who also was the general contractor for the Frankford Elevated Reconstruction Project; Buckley and Co./Cornell and Co., who hired Fischbach & Moore for the project, and SEPTA, for whom Fischbach & Moore was performing work at the time of the accident.

The bucket Kuzer fell from was held together by 12 bolts, all of which had failed, said Mongeluzzi. The bucket was attached to an arm that in turn was bolted to a boom.

“After the bucket flipped over, nine of the bolts were gone and the three remaining bolts had rotated and backed out,” he said.

The plaintiff focused on three issues in the case: why the bucket failed, Helac’s knowledge that Aero-lift mounted the equipment in a manner inadequate to handle the load, and Fischbach & Moore’s failure to have the bolts periodically inspected.

Part of the problem was Aero-lift’s failure to use “tie-rods,” 10 to 12-inch bolts, as a backup device to the existing bolts, Mongeluzzi said.

And he said the bolts had not been inspected as recommended. “Fishbach Corp. had directed Fishbach & Moore to downsize, and so it fired its mechanic one year before the accident,” said Mongeluzzi. During the time of “the disappearing mechanic,” as Mongeluzzi put it, the unit was sent to Baker Engineering for repairs, which admitted it neglected to inspect the bolts because it was working on another part of the unit, he said.

Kuzer also alleged Buckley / Cornell was negligent and violated the law by failing to provide fall-protection equipment to Fischbach & Moore employees. Buckley had claimed it would do so in a “fall protection safety plan” it submitted to SEPTA. . According to a mediation memorandum, SEPTA’s contract indicated it would “strictly enforce the provisions of the safety manual.” But a photograph taken at the job site just two days before Kuzer’s accident showed workers were not wearing safety harnesses or lanyards, Mongeluzzi said.

One of Kuzer’s co-workers testified in deposition that Fischbach & Moore employees had routinely operated aerial lifts without fall protection for six years.

Kuzer received $2.1 million in new settlement money and $340,000 as a waiver of workers’ compensation money owed. David Murphy of MANA of Pittsburgh mediated the settlement, which was joined by all defendants except for Aero-Lift.

The case against Aero-Lift will “probably be tried late this summer,” Mongeluzzi said. He credited Murphy with doing “an excellent job.”

Meanwhile, the defendants who are part of the settlement are still arguing about who will pay how much. Mongeluzzi said that arbitration is scheduled to go before Tom Rutter of ADR Options in late May.

Thomas P. Bracaglia of Kelly McLaughlin & Foster represented Helac; Eugene J. Maginnis of Dugan Brinkmann Maginnis & Pace represented Baker; Kelly L. Bracken-Tait of Marks O’Neil O’Brien & Courtney represented Fischbach, SEPTA and Buckley; and James Francis Casale of Harvey Pennington Cabot Griffith & Renneisen represented Aero-Lift.

Now 35 years old, Kuzer suffers from various cognitive deficits, including an inability to control his emotions, Wigrizer said. According to the mediation memorandum, he has become reclusive “rather than suffer the humiliation and embarrassment of spending time with people.”

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