Petula Dvorak is a columnist for the Washington Post, but not the sort of columnist that grabs national headlines or gets invited to cable talk shows. She covers Washington, DC, the place where regular people work and live, and not Washington, DC, the political center of the universe.
Mostly, it’s locals who read and appreciate her columns, and we certainly count ourselves among that number. Today she had a great article that illustrates what an injury case actually is, and what punitive damages are actually supposed to be. Normally we get the cartoonish characterizations and negative portrayals in the media, so it’s nice to see a positive and accurate reflection of the sort of work that we do.
The case in question involves what is called “premises liability.” When someone opens up a store or place of business, it involves a little more than simply throwing open the doors. The business is obligated to make sure that its customers don’t get hurt. This means simple things like keeping the floor dry, or letting them know when the floor is wet. It also means making sure that any stairwells are adequately lit, and that anything that could fall on someone is adequately secured.
In this particular case that Ms. Dvorak was covering, the business in question was a parking lot in a hospital. A six year old fell into an open airshaft and plummeted two stories onto concrete. Miraculously, he’s still alive.
He had to undergo surgery to fix his wrists and scalp, and not surprisingly, he still suffers from nightmares four years later.
The mother of the boy who fell is suing both the hospital and the company that runs the parking garage, and they are doing so for one very good reason, which is this: What on earth was an air shaft doing uncovered in the parking lot of a hospital that serves children? Because Children’s Hospital was where this happened.
According to Ms. Dvorak’s article, the attorneys for the plaintiff are suing for $57 million, and that does seem like a pretty high number if all you are thinking about is that the boy survived. But there is more to it than that.
Colonial Parking is a huge and profitable business, and they have parking lots all over Maryland, Virginia and Washington, DC. They also operate and maintain lots that don’t specifically belong to them. They are a company that failed to perform one of their primary responsibilities, which is to maintain a safe and secure place for people to park their cars at Children’s Hospital.
The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs cited Colonial for that open air vent the day the accident happened. Here’s how it was put in Ms. Dvorak’s article:
“Grilles are old, rusted and lack the structural strength to act as sufficient safeguards to provide fall protection for the four (4) level parking garage exhaust shafts,” the engineer’s report said.
Children’s spokeswoman Paula Darte said they “began a thorough investigation within minutes of this incident being reported.”
“It was not clear why a vent cover to the air shaft in the parking garage was off,” Darte said. “The entire parking garage was assessed, and no other vent covers were found to be missing. Nonetheless, our team reinforced all vent covers as a precautionary measure.”
So how did Colonial miss this? It wasn’t exactly an air vent hidden behind something.
A parking lot attendant was put on the stand, and was asked about an inspection form that had his name all over it. He claims that his bosses at Colonial came up to him after the accident and asked him to sign it. The inspection form was backdated to make it seem like inspections were happening all the time. To his credit, the attendant refused to sign it. To their shame, Colonial signed it anyway.
So, why is this lawsuit for $57 million? Colonial Parking is a business. Businesses can do lots of positive and wonderful things for the community and the economy, and sometimes they can do the exact opposite. You can’t really make a business feel bad, or shame it. It’s a thing, an entity. The only thing that matters to a business is whether it made money or whether it didn’t. So costing them money is the only way that you can punish them.
That $57 million is to make a statement, which is that you can’t just not pay attention to the premises and surroundings of your business, and you certainly can’t lie about it and pretend that you did in the event that somebody gets hurt. This is what Colonial Parking allegedly did.
Punitive damages don’t exist to simply make the plaintiff rich. They exist to send a message that actions matter and have consequences. And no matter what happens with this trial, we can guarantee you that Colonial Parking should never slack on their inspections again. And we hope that every other business that reads about this case won’t slack on inspections either. If so there won’t be pointless accidents due to negligence.
Greenberg and Bederman is an injury law firm located in Silver Spring, Maryland. We are currently offering legal assistance to those who have been injured due to no fault of their own, and that includes those who have been injured due to the negligence of business or property owners. If you or a loved one in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, DC has been injured and it wasn’t your fault, contact Greenberg and Bederman for a free legal consultation today.