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A Philadelphia jury has awarded $12.5 million to a Reading, Pa., automated factory line worker and his wife for permanent brain damage he claims he suffered when a stack of wood panels that had been placed along the factory wall fell on him, driving his head onto the cement floor. But due to the lack of insurance coverage of one defendant and a joint high-low agreement reached mid-trial with the other two defendants in the case, plaintiff Hafez Naddour may only be able to collect a maximum total of $250,000. According to court papers in Naddour v. Cefla Group, 150 panels — three feet high, four feet wide and weighing 22 pounds each — had been stacked along the wall after coming off the line at the time of the April 2001 accident. Naddour, a 60-year-old employee of Fleetwood Industries Inc. when the accident occurred, filed suit against Cefla Group, the designer and manufacturer of the line; Stiles Machinery Inc., which distributed the line to Fleetwood; and Springdell Group P.C., which had served as safety consultant to Fleetwood. Naddour alleged in his pre-trial memorandum that Cefla and Stiles should have foreseen that the panels would be leaned against the wall in the manner that led to the accident. Plaintiff’s attorney Brandon Swartz of David Itkoff & Associates in Penns Park, Pa., said that the jury found Springdell to be 50 percent liable and apportioned 25 percent liability each to Cefla and Stiles. But midway through a weeklong trial in the matter, Stiles and Cefla agreed to a joint $250,000/$100,000 high-low agreement, according to Stiles’ attorney, Neil Dilloff of Piper Rudnick’s Baltimore office. Swartz said that his client received a large workers’ compensation settlement after the accident and that workers’ comp exclusivity prevented Fleetwood from being named as a defendant in the case. Cefla’s lawyer, Charles Marion of Pepper Hamilton in Philadelphia, said that a Fleetwood plant manager and supervisor both testified at trial that they believed the accident was Fleetwood’s fault and that Fleetwood had permitted stacking of wood panels to go on before the line had ever been purchased. Dilloff and Marion both said that they are seriously considering filing for JNOV, but they maintained that they would honor the high-low agreement no matter what the outcome of any post-trial motions. “We believe the verdict is not supported by the evidence and truly shocks the conscience of the court,” Marion said. “We were just shocked at the verdict, and thought that this was the kind of case that the jury shouldn’t have gotten,” Dilloff said. Springdell’s attorney, Timothy Berger of Paul Mardinly Durham James Flandreau & Rodger in Media, Pa., said that as his client was not covered by insurance at the time of the accident, Springdell did not present a defense in the case and did not attend trial. Springdell consists of only one safety inspector and has little in the way of actual assets, Berger said. “They’re welcome to an old computer and a beat-up copier,” Berger said. “That’s the extent of [Springdell's] assets.” According to court papers, the line in question was designed to apply wood finishing to panels that would later be used as fixtures in retail stores. Naddour was responsible for removing finished panels and placing them against a nearby wall. A second-shift worker, Naddour was placing his second panel of the shift against the wall when the entire stack began falling on him. The accident left Naddour in a coma for 23 days, according to court papers. His neuropsychology expert has stated that he is unable to return to employment. “The automated finishing system as installed did not incorporate a means for safely leaning panels in a series parallel to each other,” Naddour’s pre-trial memorandum states, quoting the report of his engineering expert. “Not only were such provisions not physically incorporated in the system, no written or verbal instructions regarding their incorporation in a safe unloading area were provided.” Cefla and Stiles countered that the decision to stack the panels had been Fleetwood’s alone. “All of the Fleetwood and Stiles employees who were deposed were consistent in testifying that it was Fleetwood’s decision (and nobody else’s) to lean the panels which were removed from the end of the finishing line against the wall,” Cefla’s pre-trial memorandum reads. “No one [from outside the company] ever recommended or told Fleetwood that the panels should be leaned in this fashion, or at all.” Naddour demanded $5.75 million in his pre-trial memorandum. The defendants did not respond with any offers. During a settlement conference prior to trial, a judge pro tempore had put a zero value on the cases against Cefla and Stiles, attorneys involved in the case said. Following that conference, Cefla and Stiles moved for summary judgments; Judge Marlene F. Lachman dismissed the breach of warranty claims against both defendants, but she allowed the strict liability and negligence claims to go forward. A jury was picked Oct. 1, the attorneys said. After four days of trial before Judge Sheldon C. Jelin, Naddour rested, and Cefla and Stiles filed motions for compulsory non-suit. Jelin then dismissed the strict liability claims as to both defendants. Following that decision, Naddour and Cefla and Stiles entered into the joint high-low agreement. The trial ended Oct. 8, with the 12-member jury returning its verdict after roughly four hours’ deliberation, the attorneys said. When polled, 11 jurors said that they agreed with the verdict, and one juror said that she agreed with only some aspects of the verdict. The verdict included $10 million for Naddour and $2.5 in loss of consortium for his wife, Dorothy. Marion said that although his client intends to honor the high-low agreement no matter what, they are interested in seeking JNOV so as to clear the record of any verdict against them. Dilloff said that the high-low agreement was “worth doing.” “It reflects clearly the fact that everybody thought we were going to win, including plaintiff’s counsel,” said Dilloff, who handled the case with partner Cheryl Lardieri. Berger said that he is considering filing post-trial motions on behalf of Springdell. Plaintiffs experts in the case, according to Swartz, included professional engineer Craig Clauser of Consulting Engineers and Scientists; neuropsychologist Lindsey Robinson of Liberty Health Group; and neurologist Stanford Feinberg.

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