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Defense Verdict in a Socially Distanced Trial

November 4, 2020
Miles A. Kirshner
Posted in: General Liability

Plaintiff attended a baby shower held on a February night at the social hall of her local American Legion. When she and the other party guests arrived, the sloped parking lot was wet, but everyone was able to enter safely. While the guests were inside, the sun set, the temperature dropped, and precipitation continued. When the Plaintiff emerged into the parking lot it was covered with what she regarded as a glaze of black ice. She slipped and fell striking the back of her head. At trial, Plaintiff attempted to overcome the impact of the hills and ridges doctrine by contending that the parking lot itself was defective, and that there was an underlying crack / rut that was layered with ice that she contended was pre-existing and should have been cleared.  Trial of this matter also included a deep dispute on the question of medical causation. While all parties acknowledged a mild concussion, this Plaintiff would go on to develop, approximately nine months after her fall, a recurring experience of psychogenic non-epileptic seizures. These seizure-like events have ruined her life, disabling her from working, preventing her from driving and according to her experts, fundamentally affecting her ability to enjoy life. Plaintiff contended that the development of this seizure-like issue was causally related to the fall at the American Legion. Evidence at trial included special damages of approximately $1.7 million, including past and future medical expense and economic loss.

The defense position at trial was to concede that the Plaintiff is very sick, but to cite available medical evidence to contend that her illness is psychiatric. Discovery had revealed an unfortunate history of physical and sexual abuse sustained by this individual in her childhood. Psychological counseling records showed that there was a lifelong issue of panic and anxiety that was repressed. In the time frame that was of interest in this case, however, the Plaintiff came to believe that her former abusers were re-entering her life and creating a current threat to her. The defense contended that it was this fear which triggered the psychogenic seizures. The defense further contended, by effective use of surveillance evidence, that the Plaintiff was misrepresenting the extent of her injury. This evidence was key in removing any element of sympathy that might have existed for this ill-appearing Plaintiff.

This trial was held in the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County, PA. The jury were socially distanced throughout the courtroom gallery. There were plexiglass barriers between counsel and around the witness stand. All trial participants wore masks, except counsel when speaking and the witnesses while testifying. During trial one juror did report a secondary exposure risk in her home life. Because this exposure was secondary, the Court determined to dismiss the potentially exposed juror, but to go forward with the trial seating one of the alternates.

On October 26, 2020, the jury responded to a special interrogatory finding that the American Legion was not negligent. Accordingly, the verdict in this trial was for the Defendant. The jury did not reach and did not decide on the question of medical causation.