A former apartment complex employee who claimed he was wrongfully terminated after injuring himself on the job was awarded $725,016, including $500,000 in punitive damages, by an Ocean County jury on March 20 in Lach v. Briar Hill.

In June 2014, Joseph Lach, a full-time maintenance worker for the Briar Hill complex in Manchester, injured his shoulder lifting a couch while cleaning an apartment in the 344-unit complex. The torn rotator cuff required surger in April 2015, and Lach requested disability leave of four to six weeks, to which Briar Hill agreed, according to Lach’s lawyer, Justin Burns of McMoran, O’Connor, Bramley & Burns in Manasquan, who tried the case with partner Bruce McMoran.

The suit alleged that, three weeks into Lach’s leave, Briar Hill terminated him in a letter with no warning. Lach claimed his firing amounted to disability discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. The suit named Briar Hill and Philip Celler, a part-owner and managing partner of the complex, Burns said.

According to Burns, prior to trial, a defense motion for summary judgment was denied, and offers to settle—in the amount of $5,000, from the defense, and of $950,000, from the plaintiff—were rejected.

During a six-day trial before Ocean County Superior Court Judge Craig Wellerson, the defense contended the Lach’s absence would be an undue burden on the complex, and disputed Lach’s claimed economic damages, Burns said. The seven-member jury unanimously found that Briar Hill violated the LAD, and awarded $125,000 in lost wages and $100,000 for emotional distress, he said. After a roughly hour-long, separate punitive damages trial, the jury then awarded $500,016 in punitive damages, he said.

The defendants were represented by Michael Deem of R.C. Shea & Associates in Toms River, who didn’t return a call seeking comment.

— David Gialanella

$390K in Dog Bite Case

Stilo v. Colondres: In a Feb. 20, 2018, verdict, a woman attacked by a dog was awarded $390,000 in her Middlesex County suit against the dog’s owner and the owner of the property where to dog was kept, though her recovery is to be lower based on a high-low agreement.

According to plaintiff counsel, on May 3, 2015, Katherine Stilo, 25, an employee at a television studio, was walking her dog in South Plainfield. As she passed by 1307 Maple Ave., a boxer/pit bull mixed-breed dog escaped from the fenced yard and attacked both her and her dog, a terrier. The dog allegedly bit Stilo’s throat and knocked her to the ground. Stilo claimed neck and back injuries. She claimed she continues to have pain from the radiculopathy in her buttocks and leg. She also has a small scar, the size of a dog’s tooth, on her neck, which she covers with makeup. She said she had to switch jobs, because she could no longer do the physical aspect of her job without pain.

Stilo sued the dog’s owner, Carmelita Colondres, bringing a strict liability claim for the dog bite and a negligence claim for the dog’s knocking her to the ground. Stilo also sued the property owner, Steven Rosenberg, alleging negligence in maintaining the property under the lease agreement with Colondres. Stilo asserted that she was a third-party beneficiary under the lease, which she claimed required Colondres to prove to Roseberg that she had liability insurance. However, Colondres never did obtain the insurance and Rosenberg never enforced that part of the contract. Stilo further claimed that the lease had been altered to allow Colondres to have a dog. Colondres admitted she owned the dog, that the dog was “enormous,” that it broke the gate on the fence to escape and attacked Stilo and her dog, that it had previously gotten out of the yard by a hole under the gate and attacked another dog, and that she told Rosenberg when she rented the home that she had a dog.

Colondres did not obtain counsel and did not dispute liability. She did dispute, at a pretrial deposition, that Stilo had been bitten. Colondres claimed her dog only scratched Stilo’s neck.

Rosenberg contended that liability entirely lay with Colondres. He asserted that there was nothing wrong with the maintenance of the property, denied knowing that Colondres had a dog and alleged Stilo had been trespassing.

After a three-day trial before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Phillip Lewis Paley, the eight-member jury unanimously found that Rosenberg was negligent in maintaining the property and Colondres was negligent in controlling the dog. It allocated 20 percent of liability to Rosenberg and 80 percent to Colondres. It awarded Stilo $300,000 for her spinal injury, which was duly apportioned as $60,000 owed by Rosenberg and the remaining $240,000 owed by Colondres. Paley decided that Colondres was liable for an additional $90,000 for the strict-liability claim of the dog bite, bringing Stilo’s total award to $390,000. During jury deliberations, Rosenberg and Stilo entered a high/low agreement, by which Rosenberg would be responsible for at least $25,000 of Stilo’s damages but not more than $300,000. It was also stipulated that Stilo would drop her third-party beneficiary contract claim.

Stilo was reprsented by Kenneth W. Thomas of the Lanza Law Firm in South Plainfield.

Erik Ortega of Viscomi & Lyons in Morristown represented Steven Rosenberg.

Colondres did not have counsel.

Editor’s Note: This report is based on informatin that was provided by plaintiff’s counsel. Defense counsel did not respond to the reporter’s phone calls. 

— VerdictSearch reports