Tell us about a significant or memorable PI case you’ve handled.
Atlanta, GA personal injury attorney Thomas Reynolds talks about a specific case he was a part of involving a veteran who was severely injured and killed by a railing in an apartment building.
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One memorable case that I can speak about is the wrongful death case that we had here in Atlanta, Georgia for a paraplegic military veteran. This gentleman had served our country honorably. He had three children that he left behind. And he died by suffocating on his apartment complex railing when the bottom part of his railing gave way and the top part stayed in place and ultimately ended up clotheslining him where he suffocated and died.
That was a case that really touched my heart. I met the family and the three little girls he had. And one of them had special needs. We really wanted to help this family. And there were some problems with the case that made the defense and the insurance companies think that they might not be responsible. Specifically the individual who was deceased had a prior history of substance abuse, and they argued he had lethal levels of over-the-counter medications in his system at the time of his death. Obviously that created a significant contributory negligence issue that we had to face. And some thought it would be insurmountable to attribute the death to the suffocation in light of the high level of over-the-counter medications that he had.
But again, when we see a case that we believe and that we really want to help, we are willing to take on those sort of difficult issues. And we did in this case. So we strategized; well, how are we going to resolve this?
He was in a wheelchair at the time. And we were able to find out through our due diligence, research, and extensive discovery, that he had actually made a prior request to that apartment complex to fix his railing before when his wheelchair made contact with it. We were able to prove at that time that there were no allegations about him being impaired or under the influence of any medications when that first incident happened. So that proved, we argued, that that incident of him making contact with the railing was not necessarily based on any impairment. That was one thing that we did.
The second thing that we did was sought the assistance of experts. There ended up being at least seven different expert witnesses between the plaintiff’s side and the defense side in the case. So we traveled to San Francisco, to Indiana to depose some of their experts. And we were able to dispel the myth that he somehow died from this medication by presenting the simple question to the defense expert witness at trial, which was according to your analysis that he died from the medications, do you think he died before or after he hit the railing or before or after he went outside onto his patio?
You see, their argument that he died from the medication I thought was not sound when pressed against the reality the he had to have gone outside of his patio, opened his door to get outside, and then somehow died within the split moments before he hit the railing. And so I used that and really focused on that during the cross-examination of the defense expert to dispel this notion that he had been deceased before he made contact with the railing.
The other thing that I did was we I think did a great job cross-examining their engineer, their structural engineering expert who tried to make the argument that the railing itself was not to blame and that even though the railing gave way on the bottom, that that was not a result of the negligence of the apartment complex.
We had our own expert witnesses that did an inspection, as well as the inspection of the entire apartment complex, and found numerous examples where screws had been removed or were missing from the railing brackets, where there were some pieces of the railing brackets that were not even attached to a wall. And when you looked at those sort of examples of what I consider to be rampant violations of their requirements to provide safe housing to their tenants, I thought that that would present strongly with the jury, and it did.
When you couple that with the fact that this was an individual who was in a wheelchair, the importance of the stability of the bottom brackets I think takes even more importance. And we were able to, during cross-examination of the apartment complex ownership, get them to acknowledge the fact that for an individual who is handicapped in a wheelchair, the brackets on the bottom of a railing are of utmost importance and create a safety hazard if they’re not properly maintained. And then by showing the prior incidents of railing problems at the apartment complex, we were able to prove they had knowledge about this risk.
And again going back to the structural engineer the defense presented who made the argument that during the first railing repair that our client had requested, the maintenance would have somehow been able to bend the railing and pop it back into place. When he made that statement on the stand, I was furious, to be quite frank. And I got up right when it was time for me to start my cross-examination, ran to the back, grabbed a nine-foot piece of railing that was the type of railing that would have been installed at the time. I ran up to the plaintiff’s stand with it, I went to the witness stand with it, and I told them, well, if you think it can bend, then bend this. Bend this the way that you claim they would have been able to bend this before and pop it back into place.
You see, the reality was you could not bend it, and neither could the maintenance people at the time. The only way they were able to get that railing back in after the first incident was because it was cut too short and therefore would not have provided any kind of resistance or stability from the bracket. So I thougth that was, again, another pivotal moment during that trial.
But you have to look for opportunities throughout the discovery process and even during the trial to emphasize the weaknesses of the defense’s points and minimize them.
Probably one of the other significant things we did was to hire expert witnesses that could speak credibly on the issue of tolerance and brought in the GBI themselves who were responsible for providing the forensic toxicology results to testify that based on the nature of the drugs and the fact that they were taking after death or postmortem in a concept called postmortem redistribution where drug levels could appear higher after death than they would have been when they were actually circulating in your system when you were alive, the toxicology results that the defense was relying on were unreliable. And I was actually able to get the GBI toxicologist to acknowledge that for the purpose of trying to determine impairment or death based on drugs in his system that were taken postmortem, after the redistribution that occurs after you die, they were not reliable for that purpose.
So we put a lot of work into that case, but I was very happy with the results we got and our ability to really minimize what the defense thought were their strongest points and what they thought would have been a slam-dunk maybe against some other firms.