Given a lawsuit that was almost tossed by their own firm, Alexa Parr and Sarah Mather thought they had little chance of victory in their first trial before a jury, especially since plaintiffs already lost all 32 slip-and-fall trials in Hartford Superior Court this year.
The case, which pitted a tenant against a powerful housing entity in the state’s capital, had a willing plaintiff but a hesitant law firm. Anthony Lucas’ history of prior slip-and-falls and car accidents coupled with plaintiffs’ poor trial record left the attorneys at Dressler Strickland in a predicament.
“It was a difficult liability case and it was going to be dropped,” said Mather, who worked with Parr. “My boss, Gary Strickland, thought at the time it would be a good case for me to try and get my feet wet. It did not look winnable and proving liability seemed an uphill battle.”
Parr, a 2015 graduate of Quinnipiac Law School, said almost everyone thought she and Mather, a graduate of Suffolk Law School in Boston in 2013, would lose the case.
The rookie pair had to go up against outside counsel for the Hartford Housing Authority, who used Connecticut’s “storm-in-progress” defense. In addition, both attorneys were informed by Judge Susan Cobb that plaintiffs had yet to win any slip-and-fall cases in 2017.
“To hear from the judge herself that the defense was 32-0 this year in slip and falls in this court was definitely intimidating,” Parr said. “We already thought we were going to lose. I think we ended up winning because we were upfront and honest about everything. We did not try and hide the fact that he had other accidents and falls.”
The hardest part of defending Lucas, who is 38 years old and lives in an apartment complex owned by the authority, was fighting the storm-in-progress doctrine, Parr said. The doctrine allows a business reasonable time after a storm to start ice and snow removal.
“There was freezing rain on the day he fell,” Parr said. “They argued the storm-in-progress defense, which meant that if there was a storm that day, they could be off the hook. While we did not disagree there was freezing rain that day, we argued the ice was from the day before.”
Lucas fell at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 19, 2014, as after got out of his car and slipped on ice walking up his driveway, Parr said. Lucas, who was heading back from a date, injured his right hip, shoulder and hand. He needed surgery on his hand.
The suit claims the housing authority failed to take adequate measures to remove snow and ice from the driveway, and failed to apply salt, sand, or other abrasive material.
Before trial, the housing authority offered to settle for $10,000, but Parr and Mather turned that down. Mather said Lucas never gave a firm number for what he was looking for.
“It was not about the money for him, but more about the housing authority doing sloppy and shoddy work,” Mather said.
Lucas was involved in other slip-and-fall and car accidents, including an accident four days after the fall, Parr said.
“We thought the defense might say his injuries were pre-existing or from the car accident,” Parr said. “We narrowed [the claim] down to his right hand because that was the only body part one of his doctors said was related specifically to the fall.”
The six-person jury deliberated for about seven hours over two days before reaching its verdict on Oct. 12. They awarded $100,000 to Lucas, but said the incident was 35 percent his fault. The total verdict settlement was for $65,000.
The trial began on Oct. 5 and lasted two and a half days.
Parr said she believe she won the case “because we were very prepared and did a lot of research on the storm-in-progress doctrine. There was a lot of teamwork.”
Parr and Mather called three witnesses. They included a friend and cousin, Parr said. Those witnesses spoke of Lucas’ limitations, such as using and bending his right hand since the fall.
“His cousin spoke of him not being able to play the piano and drums anymore,” Parr said of two of Lucas’ hobbies. The other friend “had observed problems he experienced with his hand since he fell,” she said.
The third witness, Parr said, was the field operation manager for the housing authority at the time.
“He was responsible for snow and ice removal at the authority units,” Parr said. “They had a log used to keep track of work on the property. We talked to him about that. There were many inaccuracies on what date work was done and what exactly was done as far as snow and ice removal. The log only showed an address and a check mark. We asked what the check mark meant, and there was no explanation for that.”
In addition, the plaintiffs introduced a letter at trial from Dr. Craig Rodner with the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Parr said. That letter indicated Lucas’ hand was related to the slip and fall.
Parr said she did not ask the jury why it placed 35 percent of the liability on her client, but said, “My guess is it was because he went out when the conditions were bad.”
Doug Butler, who is with the Law Offices of Szilagyi & Daly in Hartford, has 20 days to appeal to the Hartford Appellate Court. Butler did not respond to a request for comment.