John W. Bell and Charles P. Rantis, Johnson & Bell shareholders, obtained a verdict in favor of a major ladder manufacturer following a two-week-long jury trial. Damages in excess of $18 million were sought. The plaintiff rejected a settlement offer of $3 million. The lawsuit arose out of allegations that a 2006 ladder accident in which the plaintiff suffered a severe traumatic brain injury which left the plaintiff, a 64-year-old retiree, with significant residual impairments including quadraparesis; seizure disorder; cognitive dysfunction; swallowing difficulty; spasticity; contractures; decubitis ulcers; and bowel and bladder dysfunction, requiring institutional 24/7 care in a nursing home. The plaintiff’s experts testified that this accident was the result of a structural overload failure of the ladder under normal usage. These experts testified that the right lower rail and/or gusset below the bottom step buckled because of inadequate buckling resistance and overstressing beyond the yield strength of the 5-foot type III duty rated aluminum stepladder which was manufactured in 1994. The plaintiff’s experts contended that a 1995 design change to the gusset, which made the gusset longer, thicker, and shaped differently as well as a change of its attachment point to the lower rail, resulted in a stronger ladder which would have prevented the subject accident. The plaintiff’s experts relied on witness testimony which placed the ladder on its right side following the accident.
In contrast, the defendant’s experts contended that the plaintiff’s experts could not demonstrate by testing or experimentation how the ladder failed. The defendant’s experts disputed the overstress or overload theory and contended that the cause of the fall was a loss of balance, overreaching, and failure to follow the safety decals affixed to the ladder. The defendant withdrew its affirmative defenses of assumption of the risk of injury and contributory negligence and proceeded on a sole proximate cause theory. The defense contended that the ladder complied with the national ladder design standards and was a reasonably safe ladder. The defendants contended that the resulting ladder damage was caused by an impact blow to the right front rail by the plaintiff hitting the ladder as he fell. The defendant’s experts contended that the ladder tipped over and landed on its left side, not its right side as asserted by the plaintiff’s experts.