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Fallen ladder leads to blindness, brain injury, $5M verdict

A 35-year-old man who went blind in his right eye and suffered brain injuries after a ladder fell off a work van on Interstate 40 has won a $5 million jury verdict against the vehicle’s owner, his attorneys report.

Robert Zaytoun of the Zaytoun Law Firm in Raleigh said that his client, Gideon Richardson, was traveling on Interstate 40 near U.S. 70 in June 2017 when the ladder fell off of the top of a van owned by Certified Heating and Air Conditioning. Richardson, who was driving behind the van, swerved to avoid it and hit a concrete barrier.

Initially, Richardson was groggy after the accident but otherwise felt fine, and damages to his vehicle were minimal. But that night he found he was blind in his right eye, and his condition deteriorated as time went on.

That’s because he had “peculiar susceptibility,” in that his skull bones are thinner than normal, Zaytoun said. The wreck caused the frontal lobe of his brain to rest on his optic nerve.

Richardson, who had been the office manager of his father’s car dealership, can no longer work and suffers from memory loss, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He is going to need someone to watch him because he can’t take care of himself,” Zaytoun said. “You couldn’t let him off at [the mall] and trust that he wouldn’t walk out into traffic.”

Richardson’s attorneys chose not to ask for medical damages or economic damages, but instead focused on non-economic damages, given that he was 35 years old and had a life expectancy of 79.

The defense admitted negligence three days before the trial began, but contested proximate cause and damages, Zaytoun said. The defense offered $200,000 to settle the case before the trial, and then $500,000 after the first day of the trial. Zaytoun said that the driver of the van admitted that he failed to properly secure the ladder.

Talking on eggshells

Zaytoun said that his client was a classic example of what’s known as an “eggshell plaintiff,” who suffers more serious injuries than a typical person would have suffered in the same circumstances as a result of a pre-existing condition. The rule is that defendants still remain liable for all of the injuries caused by their negligence, even in such cases.

North Carolina has a special “peculiar susceptibility” jury instruction for these situations, and Zaytoun said that the instruction Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gale Adams gave to the jury was crucial in securing the verdict.

“It’s rare that you have that situation, but when you do, it is a powerful instruction to the jury,” he said. “It tells the jury you have to award full damages for everything that happened.”

Zaytoun said that even though Richardson looked fine, five doctors testified to the extent of the injuries that jurors couldn’t see.

“Don’t be afraid if your client looks normal and you have a low-impact collision,” he said. “Trust in the truth of the medical facts.”

Zaytoun said his firm filed the lawsuit in Cumberland County because Certified Heating and Air Conditioning is based there.

“It used to be you would file on your home court,” Zaytoun said. “We wanted the jury to know that the people who allowed this to happen were local, and it could happen to them. There is something subliminal about that. If there is a strong case of liability, we want the locals to understand that they have to take a pretty strong position to deter that kind of behavior in the future. It could be their children, or their grandmother.”

The trial lasted 10 days, and the jury deliberated for just 32 minutes before returning its verdict on May 7, Zaytoun said. John Taylor and Matthew Ballew, also of the Zaytoun Law Firm, also represented Richardson.

David Coats and Chad Dunn of Bailey & Dixon in Raleigh represented the defendants. They could not be reached for comment.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @BCresenzoNCLW


Amount: $5 million

Injuries alleged: Mild traumatic brain injury, blindness, memory loss, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder

Case name: Gideon Richardson v. Certified Heating and Air Conditioning, et al.

Court: Cumberland County Superior Court

Case No.: 17-CVS-8708

Judge: Gale Adams

Date of verdict: May 7

Highest offer: $500,000

Insurance Carrier: Nationwide

Attorneys for plaintiff: John Taylor, Matthew Ballew, and Robert Zaytoun of the Zaytoun Law Firm in Raleigh

Attorneys for defendants: David Coats and Chad Dunn of Bailey & Dixon in Raleigh

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