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In March 1996, carpenter Daton Arce was framing a house in the Pelican Bay development in Broward County, Fla., when he stepped from the second story onto the top portion of an aluminum extension ladder. It collapsed, and he fell about 20 feet to the ground, suffering a fracture to his L1 vertebrae. The injury resulted in complete loss of bowel and bladder movements, and sexual function. He also can no longer perform physical labor. Unable to work as a carpenter, the Miami resident returned to his native Nicaragua to live with his family and earn a college degree at the University of Managua. But now Arce may be able to afford an Ivy League education. In May 1998, Frank Labrador, a partner at DeMahy Labrador & Drake in Coral Gables, Fla., filed a product liability suit against the ladder’s manufacturer on Arce’s behalf. On May 3, after a five-day trial before Judge Herbert Stettin, a six-person jury deliberated for two hours and found Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Keller Ladders liable for manufacturing a “false lock” on its 20-foot aluminum extension ladder. The jury awarded the 43-year-old Arce $3.8 million. Labrador argued that the ladder was defective because it was designed to allow the extension portion of the ladder to remain extended without the lock actually being engaged. “It was manufactured in a way that created a false sense of the ladder being locked in place, when it was not,” Labrador says. “In this case, the ladder did not fall over, but the extended portion collapsed. The ladder was still standing when he fell.” Keller Ladders was represented at trial by Paul Kaulas of Purcell & Wardrope in Chicago. Kaulus did not return calls for comment. According to Labrador, Keller has faced dozens of claims around the country over the false locks on its aluminum ladders. But it has refused to fix the problem, he says. The company’s expert, Jon Ver Halen, has helped it avoid liability in these cases by alleging that the plaintiffs had set up the ladders improperly, Labrador says. “Jon Ver Halen has made over $1 million dollars testifying for the company during the past 5 years,” the Miami attorney claims. In Arce’s case, however, an experienced construction worker named Peter Triana of Miami-based Pet Construction company set up the ladder. Keller’s attorney tried to argue that the ladder was set up improperly. But, in a major blow to the defense, Ver Halen testified that he had ruled out this possibility. The jury awarded $1.7 million for past and future pain and suffering and $2.1 million for past and future medical expenses. It found Arce 10 percent responsible for the accident. The judge will take that into account in issuing his final judgment. Keller has filed motions to reduce the jury award but has not indicated if it will appeal.

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