Water Tower Collapse Case Takes Attorneys To Africa

Water Tower Collapse Case Takes Attorneys To Africa The collapse of a water tower severely injured Hamden's Brenda Adelson, sending attorneys Hunter Smith and David Rosen to Mali to videotape testimony for a personal injury lawsuit.

One of David Rosen’s personal injury cases resolved for a confidential amount last fall. But the details that he can reveal are pretty fascinating.

When Rosen got the case, his offices were in New Haven, about 10 miles away from where plaintiff Brenda Adelson was living in Hamden.

But Adelson hadn’t been hurt in Connecticut or anywhere else in the United States. Her leg was crushed by a falling water tower in Mali, a landlocked western African country and a former French colony. Adelson’s companion was killed.

Adelson was airlifted from Mali to Paris, then taken from Paris to Hartford, and then by helicopter to New Haven. Even though Adelson lost her left leg near the hip, doctors at Yale-New Haven Hospital saved her life, Rosen says.

In pursuing a lawsuit against the owners of the water tower, her lawyers traveled even further. Discovery was conducted in four countries on three continents, including Mali’s capital of Bamako and Quebec City. Meanwhile, Rosen’s associate, Hunter Smith, flew to Paris in just his third week on the job to participate in a deposition being taken in French. Smith grew up in Europe, and he learned French in school.

Filled For First Time

Adelson was in Mali as a volunteer for MBA Enterprise Corps, an organization that deploys recently graduated MBAs from U.S. business schools for long-term volunteer assignments in developing nations.

She went to a tiny village in Mali to view the newly constructed water tower at the invitation of Cristina Nardone, the local employee of a nonprofit group that supports sustainable tourism projects in developing countries and is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

According to court papers, Nardone was the one who issued the purchase order for the construction of the water tower. She was also the one killed when the tower collapsed while it was being filled with water for the first time during Adelson’s and her visit to the village. The builders of the tower were ultimately convicted in a Malian court of involuntary homicide, involuntary battery and violating Mali’s construction law.

Rosen and Smith, along with their cocounsel and opposing counsel, traveled to Mali to take depositions for the civil lawsuit. The capital was in the last section of Mali that was still held by the government, which was trying to put down an Islamist rebellion with the help of the French.

The attorneys stayed in a nice hotel in Bamako, where there was a “very, very high level of security,” Rosen said. Armed guards screened vehicles in the parking lot and guests in the hotel lobby.

When the lawyers asked a witness why he was willing to travel eight hours to the capital to give a deposition, Rosen said the witness explained that it was the Malian way to try to help someone if asked for assistance.

At one point, the plaintiffs team looked for a piece of rebar—concrete reinforced with steel rods—because the issue arose whether rebar had been used in the water tower. During a break, taken so the witnesses and the interpreters could go to Islamic Friday prayers, Smith said he went out onto the street and asked a complete stranger if he could help acquire rebar. Just like that he got assistance.

Video Testimony

When the case went to trial in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the trial took on an interglobal aspect, too.

One key plaintiff’s witness was in Mali. Abdoulaye Mahamane Maiga was the director of the local office of the Malian water authority with jurisdiction over where the failed water tower was located. Even though he lived 17 hours away from the capital, he had come to Bamako so his testimony could be videotaped.

Another key witness, via videotaped testimony, was a traditional healer whose organization had requested the water tower be built to provide irrigation in “this very dry part of the world for their garden of traditional herbs,” Rosen said.

Souleymame Perou is a “traditional healer using herbs that are in some cases rare or endangered, and he is what used to be called a medicine man,” Rosen said.

Perou’s testimony established that the defendant, the development agency called the Academy for Educational Development (AED), was the owner of the tower, Rosen said. That was a critical fact because there is “strict liability for owners under the Napoleonic Code and the law of Mali if a building collapses,” he said.

According to Rosen, the defense was trying to show that Perou’s organization was the owner of the water tower or that either the government of Mali or the local municipality owned the tower.

“The single biggest strength in our case was our client’s strength and dignity and character,” Rosen said, referring to Adelson.

The biggest weakness, he said, was that the “defendant had not actually built the tower. Instead, it had commissioned a local contractor and the concern was that a jury might think that, ‘You never know what might happen in a remote village in a very poor country. There’s only so much that can be controlled in Washington, D.C.’”

But Rosen was able to muster a strong argument against the owner. He had evidence showing that AED did not obtain the required permit and the provisional and final inspections by a governmental inspector. While Mali is a poor country, it is “actually quite remarkably well-regulated,” Rosen said.

Malian Law

There even was an odyssey involving what country’s law would apply to the case.

The presiding judge ruled that the District of Columbia law should apply to the plaintiff’s claim that AED was negligent in selecting and supervising the independent contractor and in supervising Nardone, the local representative of the development organization.

But the judge ruled that Malian law, based on France’s Napoleonic Code, should apply to the plaintiff’s strict liability claim. And so some of the “knottiest and most complicated issues” of law were hashed out in French, said Rosen, which again made Smith’s fluency in the language helpful.

Trial testimony lasted for eight days, during which a former justice minister for Mali and the author of a publication on Malian tort law, Abdoulaye Garba Tapo, testified to the strict liability issue. But before the jury got the case, the two sides settled for an undisclosed amount.

The defense team was headed by Joseph Crociata, senior counsel with Bonner Kiernan Trebach & Crociata in Washington, D.C. Crociata did not respond to a request for comment for this article. Rosen and Smith were assisted by Patrick A. Malone, of Patrick Malone & Associates, in Washington, D.C.•