August 18, 2020

March 2015: PA, Casualty Claims Defense Verdict; DE, Appellate, S.J. Affirmed

PENNSYLVANIA: Casualty Claim—Defense Verdict

Rawle & Henderson LLP obtained a defense verdict from a Philadelphia jury in a personal injury and property damage claim. 

Plaintiff Yolanda Blalock was a low-income Philadelphia resident who owned her home located in the Kingsessing section of the city.  Significantly, plaintiff had purchased the home in 2002 for $11,500.  Because her home required repairs, she applied to the Philadelphia Housing Development Corporation to obtain free home repairs.  Blalock was approved by PHDC for several services, including weatherization of her home. 

On February 3, 2010, plaintiff authorized PHDC to retain a contractor to perform the weatherization work at her home.  PHDC then hired defendant Central Mechanical Construction Company to perform the approved weatherization work.  

The weatherization work at issue was completed by CMCC on June 14 and 15, 2010.  The work included, among other things, cutting two holes in plaintiff’s roof and blowing insulation into the space between the ceiling and the roof.  Roof vents were then installed in the holes that were cut to allow for proper air circulation and ventilation.  Approximately one week later, there had been very heavy rain storms in the Philadelphia area.  On the evening of June 26, 2010, when it was not raining, a portion of the ceiling in plaintiff’s bedroom collapsed and she filed suit alleging property damage and personal injuries.

Plaintiff alleged that the weatherization work by CMCC was performed improperly.  Specifically, she claimed that a roof vent installed by CMCC was not correctly installed and caused the ceiling collapse resulting in significant property damage and personal injuries.  Plaintiff claimed that the entire ceiling in her bedroom collapsed, along with the vent, while she was lying on her bed, and struck her body.  After the incident, plaintiff claimed that it rained into her home for days and that no one from CMCC did anything for nearly a week.  She testified at her deposition and at trial that she could see the sky from her bedroom as a result of this incident.

However, the testimony and records from CMCC in the case told a different story.  Plaintiff had been on the phone at the time of the ceiling collapse with Rita Gable, the wife of Mike Gable, owner of CMCC.  Plaintiff had called to report that there was a leak in her ceiling and she thought it was caused by the roof vent.  Rita was speaking to plaintiff when the ceiling fell down.  Rita made sure that plaintiff was not injured by offering to call for an ambulance, which plaintiff refused.  Rita then called her husband, who immediately sent a crew over to plaintiff’s home to inspect the property and make emergency repairs.  An invoice dated June 26, 2010 showed that two workers from CMCC were at the home and installed a 4-foot by 4-foot section of drywall to the ceiling in the master bedroom.

Despite this evidence, plaintiff claimed a complete overhaul of her home, including a total kitchen renovation that was to include new maple cabinets with granite countertops.  She produced an estimate for repairs totaling $118,399.54. 

An engineering defense expert was retained who conducted a site inspection at plaintiff’s home to ascertain the condition of the home and the extent of the alleged property damage.  In his report, the engineering expert concluded that the 4-foot by 4-foot section of drywall from the ceiling in the master bedroom was consistent with the water damage that occurred on June 26, 2010.  He found no water damage to the floor or walls in that bedroom.  Further, he noted that there was a ceiling fan installed in the master bedroom and it was confirmed by plaintiff at the time of the inspection to be the same ceiling fan that was present at the time of the incident and that it did not fall or become loose during the incident.  As a result, the defense expert was able to limit the property damage claim to the ceiling in the master bedroom and opined that any other claimed water damage in the home was not the result of the incident at issue.

Plaintiff also alleged that she sustained physical injuries to nearly every part of her body as a result of the piece of ceiling that fell on her.  She testified that her primary injuries included headaches, blurred vision, neck and shoulder pain, back pain (thoracic and lumbar spine), ankle and foot pain.  At her deposition, plaintiff claimed she was lying on her stomach at the time of the ceiling collapse.  At trial, she testified that she had twisted from her back onto her stomach to avoid being struck at the time of the ceiling collapse. 

It was admitted at trial that CMCC made a mistake with regard to the installation of the roof vent, which did in fact leak.  Mike Gable explained at trial that an error in the size allowed water to infiltrate the vent, which in turn caused the insulation between the ceiling and roof to become damp.  The wet insulation, over a period of days sitting on the ceiling drywall, made the drywall weak and caused it to fall.  The entire ceiling did not collapse.  The roof vent remained intact.  Mike further explained that as a result of this incident, CMCC installed new roof vents to plaintiff’s home and every other customer who had received the incorrectly sized roof vents. 

Rawle & Henderson LLP argued at trial that the scope of the damages alleged by plaintiff were not causally related to the incident.  Instead, we argued that plaintiff was unjustly trying to renovate her entire home at CMCC’s expense and that any property damage was limited to the master bedroom ceiling.  It was further argued that any personal injuries consisted only of minor head and hand contusions and that the medical evidence did not support her claimed injuries to her entire body.

After three days of trial, the jury found that while the incorrect roof vent was installed by CMCC, this mistake in judgment did not rise to the level of negligence.  The jury entered a verdict in favor of the defense.

Yolanda Blalock v. Central Mechanical and Construction, Inc., CCP, Philadelphia County, No. 02802, June Term, 2012

DELAWARE: Appellate—Summary Judgment Affirmed

by George T. Lees III and William J. Cattie III

On January 21, 2015, the Delaware Supreme Court, following oral argument that day, affirmed summary judgment in favor of Burnbrae Maintenance Association, Rawle & Henderson’s client in Hynson v. Burnbrae Maintenance Association on the basis of the decision in the trial court.  This case concerned the duties owed by the Association, which owned and maintained the common area at a development consisting of both townhouse and apartment-style condominiums.  An apartment-style condominium was owned by a co-defendant who rented to a tenant.  Plaintiff and a friend were social guests of the tenant and had left to get dinner.  When they returned, plaintiff observed an attempted robbery and intervened.  He was shot multiple times in the ensuing struggle.  The alleged assailant was later arrested but acquitted at trial.  The assailant was also named as a co-defendant in the civil case, and a default judgment was entered for his failure to enter an appearance.

During discovery in the trial court, it was determined that a significant number of the condominium units were not occupied by the owners but were rented to tenants.  Sometimes this resulted in a change in the owner’s personal situation but other owners used the condominiums as investment properties.  The estimate of tenant occupied units was thought to be as high as 60%.

The issue to be determined by the Court was the duty owed by the Association to protect social guests of tenants from the foreseeable harm while they were on the premises.

In prior cases, the Superior Court had ruled in the case of rental apartments that the duties to a business invitee existed on the landlord for injuries which occurred to social guests of tenants in the parking lot reasoning “it would be difficult if not impossible for a landlord to lease an apartment with the stipulation that the lessee was prohibited from inviting any people whatsoever to that apartment regardless of the purpose of the visit.”  Hoksch v. Strafford Apartments, Inc., 283 A.2d 687 (Del. Super. 1971).

Subsequently, the Superior Court had ruled in the case of a mixed use condominium with businesses on the first floor and residences on the floor above, that a person injured in the parking lot while intending to visit one of the residential units occupied by the owner, also was owed a similar duty by the condominium association as its business invitee.  Koons v. Sea Colony Inc., 1997 WL524085 (Del. Super. 1997).

Discovery in Hynson had established, however, that all of the units at Burnbrae were occupied as residences.  There were no businesses.  There was no office for the property manager nor were there any employees of the property manager present on a daily basis.

Delaware has adopted a statute providing:

no person who enters onto private residential or farm premises owned or occupied by another person, either as a guest without payment or as a trespasser, shall have a cause of action against the owner or occupier of such premises for any injuries or damages sustained by such person while on the premises unless those acts were intentional on the part of the owner or occupier or was caused by the willful or wanton disregard of the rights of others.

25 Del. C. §1501.

The Superior Court in Hynson ruled that while plaintiff was a business invitee of the owner of the condominium unit, he was not a business invitee of the Association.  The other unit owners were not attempting to attract social guests of the co-owners to receive an economic or business benefit for themselves.  Since plaintiff was a guest without payment under the statute, or a licensee under the common law, the Association’s only duty was to refrain from willful or wanton conduct towards plaintiff and there were no allegations of such conduct.

At oral argument before the Supreme Court, the Justices noted that its decision would have a broad ranging effect since it would apply throughout the State to residential condominiums, both those which allowed owners to lease to tenants and those which prohibited such leasing in the condominium documents.

Darnell Hynson v. Burnbrae Maintenance Association, Supreme Court Case No. 117, 2014


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