A sagging, moldy, water-damaged ceiling that collapsed on a father and son cost an apartment complex $700,000 in a verdict awarded by a DeKalb County jury.
The plaintiffs had repeatedly asked for the roof to be repaired, but patchwork fixes failed to correct the underlying roof leaks that led to the accident, said their attorney, Lloyd Hoffspiegel.
The cascade of insulation, drywall and water knocked then-16-year-old Breon Morgan unconscious, and the trauma aggravated his sickle cell anemia, Hoffspiegel said. Morgan experienced a sickle cell crisis that required hospitalization and may have shortened his life expectancy, the lawyer added.
The father, Delaney Morgan, reinjured a pre-existing shoulder wound sustained while he was in the Army in 1991, Hoffspiegel said.
Their injuries could have been prevented if the apartment complex, Sycamore Chase Apartment Homes, had replaced the roof instead of taking ineffective shortcuts, he said.
"There were so many complaints and so many times they didn’t fix the appropriate problem. They fixed the interior rather than the roof," he said. "It was just not appropriate for them to keep coming to the apartment and painting the ceiling or patching the sheetrock when they didn’t do anything to correct the cause."
The defendants, owner DT Atlanta II and manager Prominent Realty Group of Georgia, were disappointed with the Jan. 25 verdict and are considering an appeal, said their attorney, Charles Medlin of Bovis, Kyle, Burch & Medlin.
"All of the maintenance workers who testified for plaintiffs testified that the landlord had them trained to respond very quickly to all tenants’ concerns. The problem was that the roof repairs had not been sufficient, and that fact didn’t support the verdict in my opinion," Medlin said.
The jury’s total verdict amount was $1 million, but 30 percent of fault was allocated to the plaintiffs. Prominent Realty, the landlord, had offered to move the plaintiffs to another apartment so they wouldn’t continue to experience leaks, but the apartment complex was unwilling to pay for moving expenses, and the Morgans declined to move, Hoffspiegel said.
Breon Morgan’s sickle cell doctor at Children’s at Egleston provided crucial testimony, Hoffspiegel said.
Dr. Ifeyinwa Osunkwo told the jury that the ceiling collapse caused Breon Morgan’s sickle cell crisis, which developed two weeks after the accident. Morgan was admitted to the hospital and treated for three days.
The Morgans’ apartment fell apart Oct. 27, 2010, when the family set out buckets to catch rain dripping from the ceiling before it ruined their computers, carpet and furniture, Hoffspiegel said.
As the leaks increased, the father and son filled buckets and emptied them in the bathroom. A light fixture in the kitchen began flickering. Delaney Morgan took pictures of the decaying ceiling and told Breon Morgan to eat his dinner in a bedroom, where he could stay dry.
As Breon walked through the living room, a 3-foot by 5-foot section of ceiling crashed to the floor. Another family member called 911, and the pair were treated and released from the children’s hospital emergency room.
Hoffspiegel showed the jury 25 documented complaints about the leaks from the Morgan family to the apartment complex since 2007. In addition, he said cellphone records indicated the family had made more than 50 calls about the problem, and they made an unknown number of landline phone calls and in-person office visits.
The plaintiffs acknowledged that Prominent Realty promptly sent workers in response to the complaints. But Hoffspiegel said the workers only made temporary fixes, such as putting tarps on the roof. The apartment should have paid the $17,000 cost to install a new roof, he said.
"They didn’t feel this roof needed to be replaced until the time the ceiling actually collapsed. That sounds ridiculous. They should have replaced it before that happened. By then, it was obviously too late," Hoffspiegel said.
The plaintiffs had demanded $1 million before trial, and the defendants had offered $25,000, he said.
At the end of a four-day trial, the jury deliberated five hours before reaching its verdict.
Three hours in, the jury asked DeKalb County State Court Judge Janis Gordon whether they could award more money than the $1 million Hoffspiegel had requested. Her answer was that they could, but the eventual verdict stuck with the $1 million amount. Half of the award was for Breon Morgan, while the other half went to his parents.
The Morgan family continues to live in the same apartment, but they want to buy their own home and might use the money won in court to do so, Hoffspiegel said.
The case is Morgan v. DT Atlanta II, No. 11-A-34876.