In October 2007 Ariosto Zuniga and Juraci Sobreira were helping to set up a scaffolding system at a housing development project in West Norriton, Pa., according to the plaintiffs’ pretrial memorandum. While erecting a 60-foot support pole for the system, the men lost control of the pole, and it fell and hit a nearby power line. Zuniga and Sobreira, who were holding onto the pole, received severe electric shocks; Zuniga suffered burns on his face, chest, arms, hands, legs, and back, and Sobreira suffered burns on his hands and feet, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
The men had been contracted by Ana Aguilar to perform siding work at the project. Aguilar was a subcontractor to C&A Construction Co., which was a subcontractor to Mega Construction Co. Mega was a subcontractor to Hayes Construction Co., which was the general contractor for the whole project and under the employment of the owners and developers of the land, Riverview Partners II LP and O’Neill Properties Group LP, according to Mega’s pretrial memorandum.
The two men and Zuniga’s wife, Lisette Gomez, sued Riverview, O’Neill, Hayes, Mega, C&A, Aguilar, and the manufacturer of the scaffold system, Alum-A-Pole Corp., for medical bills and pain and suffering. Their initial demand was $2.5 million for Sobreira and $7.5 million for Zuniga and his wife, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum. There were no offers prior to settlement.
The parties settled Feb. 28. Mega and C&A each agreed to pay $500,000 to Zuniga, $350,000 to Sobreira, and $150,000 to Gomez. Hayes and Alum-A-Pole each agreed to pay $287,500 to Zuniga, $100,000 to Sobreira, and $112,500 to Gomez. Zuniga received a total of nearly $1.58 million, Sobreira received a total of $900,000, and Gomez received a total of $525,000, for a combined settlement of $3 million.
The plaintiffs alleged in their pretrial memorandum that Alum-A-Pole’s scaffold system lacked any adequate instructions. During deposition, the plaintiffs said, everyone who was asked how to erect the system either gave conflicting answers or said they did not know.
“Remarkably, the manner in which Alum-A-Pole’s founder/corporate designee testified that tall risers be erected was completely different: something that no deponent in the case had any idea of,” the plaintiffs said. “The instructions with the product are utterly inadequate to convey the process that is evidently intended by the manufacturer.”
Alum-A-Pole’s liability expert, John Ver Halen, said the product was safe to use as intended and its instructions were understandable and sufficient. The cause of the accident, he alleged, was the fact that Aguilar’s foreman Luis Acosta failed to read the labels on the pole instructing the user on proper use.
The plaintiffs also alleged that Hayes, Mega, and C&A should have planned out the project better and made sure that the equipment was safe and the power lines were a safe distance away.
“Instead, the construction defendants hid behind the credo responsible for killing and injuring workers across the nation daily: each contractor is solely, exclusively responsible for its own safety,” the plaintiffs said.
Hayes and Mega both claimed immunity from liability because they were the plaintiffs’ statutory employers. Both filed motions for summary judgment upon these grounds but their motions were denied.
Mega alleged in its pretrial memorandum that the company had no responsibility for the men’s injuries.
“Aguilar, through its foreman Acosta, failed to: provide a Job Hazard Analysis; use safe means and methods in the erection of the scaffolding; and failed to properly train its employees in the recognition of electrical hazards,” Mega said in its memorandum.
Zuniga and Sobreira’s attorney, David Kwass of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, said this case counters the assumption among the construction industry that claims from undocumented workers are less legitimate than claims from American-born workers.
“They do nevertheless have civil rights when working on American projects on American soil for American builders,” he said.
Defense counsel declined to comment.