Attorneys

Highlights

  • Based on its expertise handling premises liability litigation, Cummins & White, LLP secured a defense verdict for the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach, CA, when an elderly woman who was badly injured on site sued the center.
  • Despite being found negligent by the jury, the center avoided paying any money to the Plaintiff, who originally sought $900,000 in damages and was offered $100,000 to settle before trial.
  • The jury agreed with Cummins & White’s defense strategy that the action of the Plaintiff was the sole substantial factor in the case.

Case Study

Jim Wakefield of Cummins & White, LLP successfully represented the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach after an elderly woman fell and severely injured herself when she arrived late one evening to play cards at the center and found the front door locked. The woman attempted to enter the building through a side door to the kitchen. However, she had mistakenly opened the gate to an unlit stairwell leading to the basement. Once she stepped into the stairwell, she fell headfirst, breaking both wrists and suffering multiple skull fractures. Cummins & White, hired by the center’s insurance company, prevailed in a jury trial, securing a defense verdict. Though the Plaintiff originally asked for $900,000 in damages, the jury awarded her no money.

Background

A 75-year-old woman, who played cards at night at the Jewish Community Center of Long Beach, CA, arrived late one evening and found the front door to the center locked. The woman recalled that there was another entrance into the center through the kitchen, which was on the side of the building through a metal gate.

The woman proceeded to walk around the center, found the gate, and walked into the darkened yard. However, it was not the yard—it was the entrance to a staircase that led to a basement below the building. The woman fell head first down the concrete stairwell, severely fracturing both wrists and suffering multiple skull fractures. She lost the ability to smell, as well as the ability to pick up objects with her fingers. Her medical care costs exceeded several hundred thousand dollars.

Her initial claim against the Jewish Community Center was for $900,000, alleging that the building was not up to code and that the center was negligent in its upkeep. During settlement discussions, she demanded $200,000. She was offered $100,000 to settle before trial but declined the offer. The center’s insurance company retained James Wakefield of Cummins & White to handle the case.

Legal Strategy

During the trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Long Beach, CA, the Plaintiff claimed that the center maintained its property in a dangerous manner, and as a result caused serious and permanent injuries to one of its members. Plaintiff’s counsel argued that the gate should have been locked, that there should have been a working light in the stairwell, and that failure to do both invited a serious accident.

To refute the claims, Mr. Wakefield pursued a defense strategy designed to show that the sole substantial factor that caused the accident was the willingness of the Plaintiff to continue to walk into the darkened area. Though Cummins & White agreed that the gate to the stairway to the basement was unlocked and that the light for the stairwell was burnt out, the firm presented compelling arguments that the Plaintiff did not use common sense in entering the darkened stairwell.

Mr. Wakefield argued that the Plaintiff did not get to the age of 75 by acting stupidly. Mr. Wakefield, as well as an expert in accident reconstruction, argued that when she opened the gate and could not see where she was going, she should have stopped and made no further effort to walk into the center. They asserted that even if she had successfully entered the yard, she also could have been seriously injured because it was dark and she could not see to avoid hazards in the area. Her actions constituted a superseding intervening cause.

Result/Implication

After a six-day trial, the jury found that the Jewish Community Center was negligent. However, the jury agreed with the argument that the sole substantial factor that caused the accident was the continuation of the Plaintiff into the darkened area after she opened the gate. As a result, no damages were awarded.

Mr. Wakefield said that even though the jury found that the Jewish Center was negligent, the case was a defense verdict. “The verdict for the Jewish Community Center was highly unusual,” he said. “When a jury finds a party negligent, but also finds that the party is entitled to a complete defense verdict with no damages awarded, it is remarkable. The jury concluded that the center’s negligence did not have anything to do with the accident. Once the Plaintiff opened the door, she had no business walking into a dark area. If she had been reasonably prudent, she would not have been hurt.”