Two police officers who were injured after falling 30 feet down an open freight elevator shaftway while investigating the premises of a Bucks County winery settled with the winery’s owners and the company that modified the elevator for $4 million.
The settlement was reached March 5 – six days into trial before Judge John Younge in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.
In Sabath v. Sand Castle Winery, according to the plaintiffs’ settlement memorandum, Tinicum Township, Pa., Police Chief James Sabath and Officer Mark Compas were on a routine patrol at around 11 p.m. Oct. 16, 2008, when they noticed the front gate of defendant Sand Castle Winery was open.
The officers, suspicious that there may have been a robbery in progress, decided to investigate the grounds, which were dark, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
In order to get to the front door of the winery, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum, Sabath had to first walk under a tent.
As he did so, he noticed two open doors to his right. When he stepped through them, he fell 30 feet down the shaftway of a freight elevator called a vertical reciprocating conveyor and landed on a steel conveyor carrier in the basement, the plaintiffs’ memorandum said.
The plaintiffs alleged in their memorandum that there were no warnings posted near the open shaftway.
Sabath called for help and Compas, rushing to his aid, also fell through the shaftway, striking his face on a piece of the freight elevator on the way down, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
Sabath suffered injuries including multiple vertebrae fractures, as well as foot, elbow, hip joint, and pelvis fractures, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
The plaintiffs’ neurological expert, Dr. Edward A. Maitz, opined that Sabath now suffers from left-sided sensory and motor deficits, as well as left-sided motor slowing, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
The plaintiffs’ vocational expert, Dr. Mark Lukas, said that, as a result of the accident, Sabath now feels vulnerable in his position as police chief, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
Compas, meanwhile, broke his jaw and several teeth, the plaintiffs’ memorandum said.
Dr. John R. Rokita, Compas’ treating periodontist, said Compas could potentially lose more teeth, and Dr. Robert J. Diecidue, the plaintiffs’ maxillofacial surgery expert, said Compas will develop chronic pain, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
The plaintiffs alleged in their memorandum that Joseph Maxian, Sand Castle’s owner and operator, had intentionally bypassed all the safety switches on the freight elevator in order to keep the doors open and the carriage lowered in an attempt to ventilate the building and lower the temperature in the basement, where wine was stored.
The plaintiffs further alleged in their memorandum that Stokes Equipment Co., the company the winery had hired to perform modifications to the elevator, had instructed Maxian how to bypass the elevator’s interlocks – a safety mechanism designed to prevent the doors from opening until the carriage was level with the doorway.
Michael Swaintek, Stokes’ corporate designee, testified at a deposition that giving such instructions would have been a violation of company policy, according to the plaintiffs’ memorandum.
Sand Castle said in its own memorandum that Maxian had once called Stokes to report that the interlocks were not working properly, at which point a Stokes representative had instructed Maxian over the phone how to override the interlocks and manually move the platform.
Stokes, however, said in its own memorandum that the alleged conversation between Maxian and a Stokes representative amounted to hearsay. The company filed a motion in limine to block Maxian’s testimony about the conversation from entering into evidence.
According to counsel for Sabath and Compas, Larry Bendesky of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, this was a major point of contention prior to trial.
Younge eventually did allow Maxian’s testimony about the conversation into evidence, a decision Bendesky said he believed played a role in prompting the defendants to offer to settle in the middle of the trial.
“I think Stokes, first of all, didn’t know if the statement from Mr. Maxian was going to come in,” Bendesky told The Legal. “I think once it came in, they wanted to see if we were going to be able to use that statement.”
According to Bendesky, who tried the case with fellow Saltz Mongeluzzi attorney Adam J. Pantano, Maxian also testified at trial that he knew leaving the elevator doors open and the carriage lowered could be dangerous.
Bendesky said Stokes and Maxian jointly offered to settle for $4 million, but he did not know how much of that amount each of the two defendants would be responsible for.
Bendesky called the settlement “a great result,” particularly because neither of his clients lost the ability to continue working as a result of their injuries.
“Mark Compas was back to work on a full-time basis within three months and Chief Sabath was back to work on a part-time basis within six months and full-time within a year-and-a-half,” he said. “He’s going to have problems, he’s going to have issues, but he looks pretty good. We thought this was certainly in the range of what the jury was going to come back. They could have come back with less, they could have come back with more, but the officers wanted to take the offer on the table. This will provide some financial security.”
Stokes’ attorney, Thomas F. Reilly of the Chartwell Law Offices, said Bendesky and Pantano “did a great job putting on their case and they achieved a fair settlement for their clients.”
“The settlement was about the midpoint of what I predicted the verdict range was, so that’s fair,” Reilly said.
Sand Castle’s attorney, John D. Shea of Litchfield Cavo in Cherry Hill, N.J., could not be reached for comment at press time.