Dept. of Corrections not liable for fall

By John O'Brien | Aug 22, 2006

Bob Martin

POINT PLEASANT - A Mason County jury recently denied the $1.3 million request of a former nursing director at Lakin Correctional Facility who says she fell when she tried to sit on a chair.

Debbie Stewart blamed the hard-casters on the bottom of her chair, an issue with which Bailey and Wyant defense attorney Robert Martin says had never been dealt.

"My closing argument in the case was that there are no cases, no literature and no statutes or rules or anything that this is any kind of problem," said Martin, who helped represent the state's Department of Corrections. "They had an expert that testified that he'd found all this literature on the Internet, but I argued it was all sales literature from manufacturers."

A jury agreed with Martin, who tried the case with Justin Taylor and Ryan Flanagan.

Stewart argued that a state-purchased chair with hard-casters on the bottom of its legs being put on a hard-surfaced linoleum floor created an unsafe working environment. She says she fell while trying to sit in a chair and sought more than $1 million for her medical bills.

Martin says he didn't argue the amount - "It screwed her up pretty good," he said - but chose to argue the liability issue.

"I had a very heated cross-exam of their expert and ultimately got him to say sitting down in a chair at work, regardless of the type of chair, is a common-sense issue," Martin said.

Judge David Nibert presided over the trial, which culminated in Aug. 13's verdict.

C. Dallas Kayser of Point Pleasant law firm Kayser, Layne and Clark represented Stewart.

During his cross examination of Stewart, Martin says she could not testify that she definitively looked down at the chair before attempting to sit in it, only that she couldn't imagine not doing it.

In Martin's closing argument, he sat in the witness chair while he addressed the jury.

"I told them that she couldn't look you in the eye and tell you that she watched out for her own self," Martin said. "In our society, it's become particularly popular to blame somebody else for our own mistakes, particularly when we get hurt."

The jury was out for 3 hours, 25 minutes.

Had she been victorious, Martin says Stewart could have only recovered $1 million. Normally, he explained, the State can't be sued because of sovereign immunity.

But under a Board of Risk Insurance Management case such as Stewart's, the State has a $1 million insurance policy.

"You can only sue the State up to its insurance coverage," Martin said.

Regardless, Martin said he probably will think twice the next time he goes to sit in a chair.

"How often do you think about that?" he said. "The Department of Corrections probably buys 200-300 chairs a year for every jail and prison in the state. That's just crazy."

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