Property Manager’s Removal of Safety Sign Leads to Painter’s Crushing Injury in Elevator Shaft

Synopsis

On Oct. 22, 2010, plaintiff Chad Hurlbut, 27, a journeyman painter, was working on a painting project at the office headquarters of the Sobrato Organization in Cupertino. Sobrato Construction Corporation hired Hurlbut's employer, A&E Painting Inc., to paint the steel framework on the interior of the building's three-story tall glass atrium lobby. A&E rented a bucket lift so its painters could reach and paint the steel beams.

On the date in question, Hurlbut was working alone and painting an area of the ceiling over an exposed elevator shaft. (The building was occupied for normal business at the time.) Hurlbut was in the hoistway when a Sobrato employee called the elevator to the third floor and pushed Hurlbut's bucket lift upwards towards the ceiling. Hurlbut claimed he was crushed into the steel beams he was painting, and was pinned there until he maneuvered the bucket out of the hoistway with his free hand. He claimed pain to his neck and head.

Mr. Hurlbut claimed when he began work on the date of loss, he did not turn off the subject elevator or ask anyone else to turn the elevator off. Instead, plaintiff claimed he relied on a paper sign he had seen earlier that morning taped to the elevator doors that stated "Elevator Out of Order Please Use Stairs." Mr. Hurlbut claimed that he thought his employer told him the elevator was turned off, but his employer denied doing so. A&E had planned to do the work in the elevator shaft over the weekend when the building was unoccupied, but could not remember whether this was communicated to plaintiff.

Sobrato argued that Mr. Hurlbut was rushing to finish work on the date in question, a Friday, so he could go hunting over the weekend. Defendant argued that it was Mr. Hurlbut's coworkers who had posted the sign on the elevator doors, to reserve the elevator for moving equipment, and that the sign was an inadequate substitute for locking out and tagging out the elevator. Defendant argued that Mr. Hurlbut and his employer violated Cal-OSHA regulations by failing to ensure the elevator was de-energized before working in the hoistway.

Sobrato's building manager claimed that she had thought the painting work had been completed, and claimed that she saw the elevator being used on the date in question. She further claimed that nobody had notified her that the painters would be working in the elevator. The building manager, therefore, claimed she removed the sign posted on the elevator doors after Mr. Hurlbut's coworkers had left with their equipment. (The accident is said to have occurred roughly an hour later.)

Injuries/Damages

Mr. Hurlbut was taken to a medical clinic on the day of the accident with reports of neck pain. He had a red mark on his head, but no bruising or bumps. Mr. Hurlbut was diagnosed with a neck sprain and discharged. He returned to light duty at work the following Monday. A&E testified that it was jointly decided Mr. Hurlbut would apply for worker's compensation, because there was no light duty work.

Mr. Hurlbut also claimed post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident, which precluded him from working from heights or around elevators. Plaintiff further claimed his pain symptoms did not resolve with conservative treatment, despite over three years of treatment. Three and a half years after the accident, Mr. Hurlbut was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome.

Mr. Hurlbut claimed he could not return to work as a painter, and would only be able to work in a sedentary position on a part-time basis after receiving psych treatment. He claimed he would need surgery for his thoracic outlet syndrome, as well as continuing psych treatment. Mr. Hurlbut also claimed he is limited in certain activities, in that he can no longer actively hunt like he used to.

TSO argued that Mr. Hurlbut could not have been pinned as described in light of the height of the space between the top of the elevator cab and the ceiling. Defendant further argued that plaintiff was negligent in placing himself above an operating elevator, and that A&E was negligent for failing to shut down the elevator or prevent their employee from acting in an unsafe manner.

Result

The parties negotiated a settlement for $1,050,001. Of the total, $1,000,001 was for Mr. Hurlbut and $50,000 was for Mrs. Hurlbut.

Settlement Date

5/16/2014