Ervin Gonzalez and Deborah Gander
Ervin Gonzalez and Deborah Gander (AM Holt)

Case: Stephen Wolkoff v. Sunshine Storage

Case no: CACE09014543

Description: Negligence

Filing date: March 12, 2009

Trial dates: Nov. 4-14, 2013

Judge: Broward Circuit Judge Jack Tuter

Plaintiff attorney: Ervin Gonzalez and Deborah J. Gander, Colson Hicks Eidson, Coral Gables

Defense attorney: C. Richard Fulmer, Fulmer LeRoy Albee Baumann, Fort Lauderdale

Jury award: $5.66 million

Details: Stephen Wolkoff, a retired Boca Raton contractor, went to a Sunshine Storage Inc. facility in Deerfield Beach on Jan. 3, 2009. He rented a larger unit and was moving belongings from the small unit.

At one point while Wolkoff was in the smaller unit, the metal roof collapsed. The combined weight of the roof and the contents from a second-storage storage loft totaled 1.5 tons.

Wolkoff, then 66, was trapped alone inside the unit. Passersby came to his rescue and partially raised the roof, but they could not get him out. Finally, an emergency medical team freed Wolkoff with severe injuries. He was taken to North Broward General Hospital for emergency treatment. Wolkoff sued for his injuries, pain and suffering.

Plaintiffs case: Wolkoff’s attorneys needed to establish Sunshine Storage’s liability and the extent of the plaintiff’s injuries with medical records and testimony.

The engineer who designed the building and the general contractor the built the facility were deposed to establish liability.

Gonzalez alleged the roof was not properly supported with bracing or bolts because Sunshine failed to properly draft and get building code approval for the structure.

“There were no plans,” he said. “The owner didn’t have (structural) plans, and the city never had plans.”

Jurors heard the testimony of nine treating physicians on Wolkoff’s injuries. He suffered a broken pelvis and other bone and joint injuries. After getting emergency treatment, he was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to realign his pelvis and correct an injury that forced him to use a colostomy bag.

Wolkoff went through rehabilitation for months and reached maximum medical improvement. However, his recovery left him significantly more impaired than he was before the injury.

Wolkoff had for years been a bodybuilder. For a time, he lifted weights competitively. After recovery, he was left with drop-foot in both legs. He uses a walker or cane to get around, and is often in a wheelchair.

Defense case: Fulmer did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Gonzalez said Sunshine focused on putting the blame on Frank F. Tjarks, the Boca Raton building contractor, and his design engineer.

Outcome: The jury awarded $4.96 million for past and future medical costs and other compensatory damages. Wolkoff was awarded $500,000 for pain and suffering. His wife, Julie Wolkoff, was awarded $200,000 for pain and loss of consortium.

Stephen Wolkoff was assigned 10 percent comparative fault. The remaining fault was split 30-30-30 between Sunshine and two nonparty Fabre defendants, the engineer and contractor.

Verdict in hand, Tuter said he would not allow the 60 percent fault assigned to the two nonparty defendants in his final judgment because Sunshine failed to prove as a matter of law that they were liable.

Comments: “We don’t anticipate the judge reversing himself in light of lack of evidence implicating the nonparty defendants,” Gonzalez said. “The final judgment against the defendant will probably be $5,090,400.”

Post-verdict: On Dec. 9, Tuter denied the defendant’s motion for new trial. Sunshine also asked Tuter to change his mind and allow the 30-30-30 split.

Gonzalez argued against that and asked for a new trial on pain and suffering damages because he considered the $700,000 too low.

A final judgment is expected to be entered in January.