Case: Tim Arnold v. American Custom Yachts

Case no:11-1056-CA

Description: Negligence

Filing date: July 20, 2011

Trial date: Jan. 7-9, 2013

Judge: Martin Circuit Judge James McCann

Plaintiff attorney:William Ruggiero, Law Offices of William C. Ruggiero, Fort Lauderdale

Defense attorneys:Michael Ashy and Shannon Rodriguez, Phelps Dunbar, Tampa

Jury verdict: $826,400

Details: Fort Lauderdale boat repairman Tim Arnold, 50, was installing generators on the 90-foot charter yacht, Next Deal, at American Custom Yachts in Stuart. The marina positioned a rolling staircase at the yacht, and Arnold made several trips up and down April 2, 2008. On his last trip, the staircase collapsed and Arnold fell 15 feet, breaking his heel bone. The fracture required two surgeries with placement of plates and screws.

American made Arnold sign a document before he entered the yard saying he was an independent contractor working for AC Powerplus, a marine generator service company. Before the trial started, it offered him $125,000 to settle, Arnold’s attorney said.

Plaintiffs case: American Custom Yachts had placed the portable staircase before Arnold arrived.

“He fell 15 feet straight down on that heel. He’s lucky he’s not dead,” Ruggiero said, calling his client “a hardworking, tough guy.”

Arnold’s expert witness, Fort Lauderdale podiatrist Jennifer Boeri, testified by video that the fall caused Arnold’s injuries.

Ruggiero said a plaintiffs witness testified about witnessing the portable stairs collapse. He also presented photos taken that morning that showed the staircase base had no chocks adjacent to the wheels.

“I got their supervisor to say if the thing was put up there without chocks, it would be negligence. And I had the photographs,” Ruggiero said.

He worried about what kind of jury pool he would get in Martin County.

“It’s a conservative area up there,” he said. “We had a panel of 35 with no minorities.”

He ended up with five men and one woman, all white.

“We were kind of surprised by the verdict,” he said.

Ruggiero asked the jurors to award Arnold $950,000.

“The wages were kind of tricky because by the time we got to trial he was making the same money as he did before,” Ruggiero said.

But Arnold now works primarily indoors, his attorney said.

The boatyard was “basically just shifting responsibility the whole trial,” he said. “Their people came in and said they did nothing, they know nothing. That was their position.”

Defense case: Ashy disputed the assertion that the marina tried to shift blame.

“We put on evidence that the fall was caused by several factors,” he said.

Ruggiero said a defense expert, orthopedic surgeon Craig Breslauer of Stuart, came to the same conclusion as Boeri about Arnold’s injuries.

“On his report he agreed with our doctor, but they never called him,” Ruggiero said.

The marina said Arnold was responsible for his injuries because he did not inspect the staircase before using it, that AC Powerplus was responsible for not inspecting the staircase beforehand and that someone who put wooden blocks on the top stairs to form a final step was responsible, Ruggiero said.

Outcome: After deliberating three hours, the jury found the yacht company 100 percent liable, awarding $276,400 for past medical expenses and past lost wages and $550,000 for past and future pain and suffering.

Comments: “American Custom Yachts, they’re pretty smart. They make everybody sign this long agreement” about being an independent contractor, Ruggiero said.

Post-settlement:The company is seeking an $8,000 setoff for insurance payments Arnold received. He also would have to repay what he got from workers’ compensation.

The company has not decided yet whether to appeal.

“It is what it is, and we’re exploring our options,” Ashy said.