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No Prize Behind the Door: Premises Liability & Hidden Risks

I. Door One: Injury

Some accidents happen on premises because people forget a hazard even exists. Like a forgotten but malevolent Pandora’s Box, injuries can also occur by someone’s being in the wrong place, and opening the wrong door at the wrong time,

II. X Marks the Spot

Fletcher, north carolina, has become a successful location for major factory sites. With growth and changes in manufacturing needs across the country, its location near a major regional airport has played a part in re-designing many of the older facilities in the area. Maxine S. was in charge of the process of how to consolidate and better use a 990,000+ square-foot maintenance area in a large factory space. Maxine was not employed by the company that was having the factory improvements done. The company that hired Maxine, a premises liability lawyer later emphasized, had specifically signed off with other large companies, in order to have a separate contract and to provide for Maxine’s temporary on-site work.

The door was distinctively marked with a large “X” spray-painted on its surface. It was an old, disused fire door, roughly 8 feet long and 6 feet high. The premises liability lawyer was to discover the door’s total weight was almost 300 pounds. Maxine instructed one of her subcontractors to move the door, only with a forklift. The fire door was propped against what was later found to be an uneven wall. The wall had a major recess in it; piping and conduit ran down the wall onto the floor. It was against these conduits that the fire door was mostly resting. Part of the problem was that the door had been largely ignored in this location for almost 3 years. This meant that no one really knew what its potential hazard was. The premises liability lawyer later obtained a confession from one of the plant managers that this “probably wasn’t the best place to store the door.”

Maxine later testified in somewhat uncertain terms about the accident. In response to her premises liability lawyer’s questions she recalled the following: “(the fire door) looked like it was standing straight up against the wall, as if it were part of the wall.” Near the end of the day, Maxine saw a metal c-clamp laying on the floor at the foot of the door. She remembers bending down to pick it up. She does not, however, necessarily recall how or why the door fell on her. She only remembers the pain and being pinned to the ground. Fortunately, one of her workers was in the area, and heard her cry out. He tried to lift the door and couldn’t. Two factory workers heard the shouts, and came running to help. The three men were finally able to lift the door from Maxine and get her to an ER.

Evidence adduced by the premises liability lawyer suggested that at some point earlier in the day, cleaning crews around the door may have pushed it further upright. The premises liability lawyer had evidence of “skid marks” suggesting this movement of the door. This had the effect of making the door even more precariously balanced against the uneven wall and conduits.

Maxine’s injuries were extensive and painful. She suffered a crushed pelvis along with multiple fractures. Nerve damage and a broken sacrum were addressed during her two weeks in the hospital. Even after discharge from the hospital, she was bedridden for a full month. Continuing symptoms included headaches, blurred vision, and intestinal problems. She testified that she was no longer able to have sex with her husband. Additionally, she began having to walk with a cane and was prescribed fairly extensive pain medication.

One of the most important pieces of evidence developed by the premises liability lawyer was key testimony from James O., who was an electrician at the Fletcher plant. James testified positively that there were previous safeguards to secure the door to the wall with rope. Crucially, the premises liability lawyer showed that those ropes had been removed before the accident. The premises liability lawyer also demonstrated previous safety equipment had been present. Because of a major cleaning project in the area, there had been some curtains and even a type of fence or cage. At the time of Maxine’s accident however, the premises liability lawyer showed that the previously cordoned-off safety features had all been removed for the cleaning and never put back.

III.   Maybe She Was Working For Us, After All…(Not)

After the accident, the factory site changed its mind about Maxine’s employment status. Instead of leaving themselves exposed to a premises liability lawsuit, they sought to argue that Maxine should only be allowed to sue under Worker’s Compensation.

North Carolina courts have often recognized something called “special employment,” or sometimes called a “borrowed servant doctrine.” At law, the premises liability lawyer pointed out, this can show that a person might be employed by two different employers at the same time. This can lead to a complicated analysis that can only truly be argued effectively by a very experienced lawyer; NC’s premises liability rules raise another level of required expertise. In this case, the premises liability lawyer successfully argued there was absolutely no evidence that the factory owner personally contracted Maxine in any way.

A premises liability lawyer can also point out the way that a person acts might be quite unlike an “employee” on the premises. In this case, Maxine’s conduct certainly indicated she exercised independent responsibility. Maxine was left her with her own decisions about how she did her assignment at the factory site. This helped rebut the factory claim that she had somehow morphed into their employee.

IV. “You Take Your Victim As You Find Them”

At the time of the injury, Maxine was 52 years old. The injury would’ve been serious for anyone, of any age or health. At the same time, it’s crucial that the expert help of a premises liability lawyer addresses the specific needs of your case. This includes issues of experience as well as general health, age and knowledge. This flows from the fact that the law will protect a person who may have incurred special damages. In this case, as an older person, the impacts on Maxine are literally more likely to be life-changing. The increased chances that she will never fully recover (such as her use of the cane to walk) deserves special attention in deciding the damages caused to her.

Conclusions:   

Maxine would not have known to approach this case as a premises liability injury. The court even seemed to chastise the factory owner for ignoring that premises liability (and not simple negligence) had been the basis of the jury award. But Maxine had wisely sought the help of an experienced attorney, who understood the differences between premises liability, negligence, and workplace injuries. Ultimately, her premises liability lawyer won the argument that the employer could not hide their responsibility to Maxine, based upon trying to change her employment status with them after the injury. Maxine’s premises liability lawyer was successful in seeing the jury award $1,250,000 to Maxine for her injuries.

If you, a family member or a loved one have been hurt in an accident or injury on another person’s or business’s premises, related to poor safety or construction, please contact us.  You will speak with a premises liability attorney/ lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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