Worker paralyzed in fall from fire escape when lifeline fails

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Case in Point

February 8, 2011

Worker paralyzed in fall from fire escape when lifeline fails 

The plaintiff, who was using a retractable lifeline while installing decking on the steel frame of a building’s second-floor fire escape, suffered a spinal fracture resulting in paraplegia. He alleged that the lifeline’s manufacturer failed to warn that it could fail if struck by a falling object. The jury awarded the plaintiff about $21.13 million. Bacon v. DBI/SALA.

Ronald Bacon, 48, was installing decking on the steel frame of a building’s second-floor fire escape. For fall protection, he used an SRL Ultra-Lok 30-foot self-retracting lifeline manufactured by DB Industries, Inc. The lifeline consists of a retractable cable in a housing that is anchored above the worker’s head. The other end of the cable is attached to the worker’s safety harness. The cable spools out and retracts into its housing and is designed to lock when the line is pulled suddenly. In the event of a sudden acceleration, the line was designed to lock generally within 6 to 9 inches but, under any circumstances, within no more than 42 inches.

As Bacon was on the fire escape’s frame, several deck plates being delivered by a crane suddenly came loose and fell. Bacon deflected the first plate, but the second one struck the lifeline, which failed to lock and spooled out all the way. Bacon fell 12 to 13 feet to the first-floor fire escape and suffered a burst fracture at T12, resulting in paraplegia. He now uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with many daily living activities. His past medical expenses totaled about $1.63 million, and his future anticipated medical expenses—excluding possible complications such as urinary tract infections, ulcers, and the risk of amputation—are estimated at $1.48 million.

Bacon was earning about $50,000 annually as a construction worker at the time of the incident. His total economic damages, including past and future wage loss and benefits and expenses for home modifications, are estimated at about $4.23 million.

Bacon sued DB Industries, Inc., alleging failure to warn that the lifeline could fail if it was struck by a falling object.

The defendant argued that the line was struck by four decking pieces with a combined weight of 700 pounds and that it was not designed to withstand that much weight.

The jury awarded about $21.13 million. The workers’ compensation carrier asserted a lien of about $1.6 million.

The defense has moved for a new trial, remittitur, and judgment n.o.v.

Citation: Bacon v. DBI/SALA, Doc. 1047, No. 091 (Neb., Douglas Co. Dist. Jan. 12, 2011).

Plaintiff counsel: AAJ member Robert G. Pahlke, Robert Hippe, and Kyle Long, all of Scottsbluff, Nebraska; AAJ members Britany Shotkoski and James E. Harris, both of Omaha; and Jennifer Turco, also of Omaha.

Plaintiff experts: Jerry Hall, aeronautical and mechanical engineering, Ames, Iowa; and Michael Downey, construction safety, Michael Longley, spinal surgery, Thomas Franco, physiatry, and Jerome Sherman, economics, all of Omaha.

Defense experts: Steven Arndt, warnings, Wood Dale, Illinois; and Arnold Kraft, construction safety, Burnsville, Minnesota.

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