AAJ presented its Steven J. Sharp Public Service Awards during the Membership and Awards Luncheon at the Association's annual convention in San Diego, California. This convention's recipients were attorneys Stanley M. Chesley, Terrence Goodman and Theresa Groh of Ohio and client Lola Reinhart, attorney Michael D. Padilla of California and clients Kathy and Scott Olsen, and attorneys John Edwards and David Kirby of North Carolina and clients Sandy and David Lakey.
"These recipients are truly deserving of this award," said AAJ president Howard Twiggs. "By telling the story of American civil justice, these cases assure that our state and national policymakers fully understand what's at stake when corporations and the medical and insurance industries push for radical liability limits and other changes that limit our legal rights."
During last year's debate in Congress over a proposed products liability bill, Chesley, Goodman and Groh informed AAJ of a case that illustrated the danger of this legislation. Their client, Lola Reinhart, was in an apartment building elevator with friends in 1994 when the machine broke and plunged four stories. Lola's right leg had to be amputated because of this catastrophe. Two of her friends, survivors of the Holocaust, died in the tragedy. Another six people were injured.
A major oil leak from the elevator's underground steel cylinder caused the elevator to fall. The elevator lacked a fail-safe device to slow or stop it safely in the event of a malfunction. Reinhart and the people injured and affected by this tragedy filed liability claims against the elevator manufacturer, maintenance company and property owner. Their cases were settled before trial.
The defective elevator in this case was 22 years old at the time of the accident. Under the federal products liability bill passed by Congress last year, Lola and the other people injured in this tragedy would have been absolutely barred from filing a lawsuit to hold the manufacturer accountable.
This case had a tremendous effect in pointing out the inherent dangers of the products liability bill, and helped President Clinton make his decision to veto it. Reinhart was invited to the White House to stand with the President on the day of the veto and witness this major victory for American consumers.
Kathy and Scott Olsen and their attorney Michael Padilla were next recognized for their unwavering battle against the unfairness of medical malpractice caps and their lobbying efforts against such legislation both in California and in Congress.
During a 1992 outing, the Olsens' 2-year-old son Steven tripped and fell, causing a twig to lodge in his cheek. The Olsens, following the instructions of their health plan, went to a hospital of the insurer's choice. Days later, Steven developed fevers and headaches, which were twice dismissed by examining doctors. The doctors refused the Olsens' request for an MRI and ignored their concerns that these pains might be related to his injury.
Steven's condition kept getting worse. Finally, weeks later, he got a brain scan. It showed an abscess in his brain, caused by the stick, which was inducing seizures. Because he had been left untreated for so long, Steven went blind and developed cerebral palsy.
Kathy and Scott found out later that their health plan knew all along about the possibility of a brain abscess, even as the HMO was forbidding Steven to get a brain scan or to see a neurologist. The Olsens filed suit against the medical group.
A jury hearing these facts awarded Steven $7 million for the life of pain and suffering he now faces. But under California's "one-size-fits-all" cap on non-economic damages, Steven was awarded just $250,000—an amount that in no way can adequately compensate him or his parents.
The final presentation of the Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award was made to attorneys Edwards and Kirby and their clients Sandy and David Lakey. Valerie, the Lakeys' daughter, was 5 years old when David took her to the community swimming pool in June 1993. In the wading pool, Valerie sat on an uncovered drain opening. The enormous suction force created by the pool's pump trapped Valerie on the open drain. Her father and other adults heard her cry and tried to pull her off the drain, but to no avail. Finally the pump was shut off.
Valerie, now nine, survived but is missing 90 percent of her small intestine and 70 percent of her large intestine. She must be hooked to tubes for 12 to 14 hours each day so that she can receive the nutrition she needs to live.
With help from Edwards and Kirby, the Lakeys learned that the manufacturer never warned its customers that its drain cover needed to be screwed into place. The manufacturer also knew of several other cases involving suction entrapment in which children had been killed or injured, but it never took steps to prevent such injuries. After a jury verdict in favor of the Lakeys, the parties agreed to settle this case.
David and Sandy have lobbied vigorously to prevent such tragedies from occurring again. As a result, the North Carolina legislature recently passed laws making it the only state in the nation to require at least two drains in all public swimming pools. Other states are now patterning their proposed laws on the North Carolina statute.
These three cases embody the spirit and strength behind the creation of the Steven J. Sharp Public Service Award, which honors Steven Sharp, a young man who lost both arms to a defective tractor hay baler. Steven would have been barred from bringing his claim against the manufacturer of this baler had proposed products liability legislation been the law, simply because the tractor hay baler was more than 15 years old. Steven's case strongly illustrated the harm this legislation would inflict on innocent citizens—depriving people like him of access to justice.