Meranda Reifschneider and Raul E. Garcia of Rubenstein Law in Miami secured a $4.8 million jury verdict for Juan Del Valle and his wife Oslayda Vento against Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. after a nasty fall left him with lifelong injuries.
“He fell hard,” Reifschneider said of Del Valle, who will have metal plates and screws in his body “for the rest of his life.”
In July 2014, Del Valle was shopping for an onion at Winn-Dixie of Miami Lakes when he rounded a corner and slipped on a puddle of water. Reifschneider told DBR that Del Valle landed on his backside and struck his head on the back of a produce case, which had been leaking water for weeks.
“They knew it was leaking,” Reifschneider said. “Their fix was to put absorbent strips around the edge of the cooler to absorb the water as it leaked out, but apparently those strips have to be checked and changed every so often to make sure they don’t become oversaturated with water.”
Video footage revealed that in the hour before Del Valle’s fall, no one approached the cooler to check the strips.
“They were pretty much completely ignored,” Reifschneider said.
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Staff had put out a wet floor sign to warn people of the leak — but just the one.
“My client could not see [the sign] from the direction he was approaching,” Reifschneider said. “It was on one side of the cooler, and he was approaching from the other.”
Neither immediately responded to requests for comment.
At trial, Abel and Brand pointed out that Del Valle had waited a week before seeking medical attention. They also hired medical experts who argued that 57-year-old Del Valle’s injuries were a product of his age.
However, Reifschneider and Garcia countered by highlighting that Del Valle had never before complained of back or neck pain to a doctor.
Del Valle was “reluctant” to undergo surgery, Reifschneider said, and spent a year experimenting with physical therapy and pain management injections before eventually having three spine operations. The defense’s claim that Del Valle should have noticed the water and “been extra careful” not to slip because he was wearing flip-flops didn’t “go over very well with the jury.”
“He’s been through hell and back,” Reifschneider added.
Del Valle had an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF), which fused three levels of his spine, then had another fusion procedure on his lower back.
Del Valle later had a spinal cord stimulator implanted in his back, which sends electrical pulses to block pain signals.
“That’s a device that comes with a generator, which is essentially a battery, and there are leads or wires that run from that generator up the spinal cord,” Reifschneider said.
The generator has to be changed every 10 years, which according to Reifschneider means Del Valle is facing ”at a minimum, two or three additional surgeries to have that generator changed.”
The device comes with a “little remote control that he has to carry around,” which Reifschneider had Del Valle show the jury.
“It looks like a mini iPhone, and it’s literally a remote control that controls how strong the pulses sent by his spinal cord stimulator are, so he can adjust it depending on his pain level at the time,” Reifschneider said.
Reifschneider also had Del Valle “take off his shirt and show the jury his back, which is covered in scars.”
The way Reifschneider saw it, that humanization of the plaintiff stirred something in the jury, as it awarded ”every penny” of Del Valle’s past medical expenses.
“Slip and fall cases are challenging, even with good facts,” said Garcia, who served as co-counsel to Reifschneider. ”In this case, the jury clearly understood what Winn-Dixie did wrong and the monumental impact that the negligence had and will continue to have on Mr. Del Valle’s life.”
Del Valle is “not the kind of person who’s going to let anything get him down,” Reifschneider noted. ‘That was actually one of the things that the defendant tried to attack him with.”
The defense used Facebook posts to demonstrate that Del Valle had attended a concert and taken a trip to Universal Studios for his daughter’s birthday.
“Of course, he didn’t ride the rides, and they had to push him around in one of those wheelchairs, but he went anyway,” Reifschneider said.
The jury also heard how Del Valle’s wife has experienced “a lot of anxiety and worry” about what’s going to happen to him as he ages.
“I know that bothers her a lot,” Reifschneider said. “It’s hard for her to see him weakened, really. He tries to put on a happy face and an ‘everything’s going to be OK’ attitude for her benefit, but their lives are different now.”
The jury awarded Del Valle and Vento a total of $4,877,775.85.
Case: Juan Del Valle v. Winn-Dixie Stores Inc.
Case no.: 2016-031038-CA-01
Description: Personal injury/premises liability
Filing date: December 5, 2016
Verdict date: September 11, 2018
Judge: Circuit Court Judge Daryl Trawick
Plaintiffs attorneys: Meranda Reifschneider and Raul Garcia of Rubenstein Law, Miami
Defense attorneys: Evan Abel and Michael Brand of Cole, Scott & Kissane, Miami
Verdict amount: $4,877,775.85