The estate of the late Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Robert C. Daniels has filed a lawsuit against securities and class-action attorney Sherrie R. Savett and two other defendants over Daniels’ fatal fall at an engagement party in Savett’s home, according to a complaint filed Tuesday.
The defendants are Savett, managing shareholder with Berger & Montague and chair of the firm’s securities fraud group and whistleblower, qui tam and False Claims Act group; the caterer for the party, Betty the Caterer; and catering staffing company Ellsworth Scott & Staff, the complaint said.
The claims include premises liability, a wrongful death and survival action and negligent infliction of emotional distress.
The complaint was filed by Matthew A. Casey, Jennifer L. Russell and Gregory N. Haroutounian of Ross Feller Casey. The plaintiffs include the co-executors of Daniels’ estate and his sons, Sean J. Daniels and Christopher E. Daniels, and Diane C. Daniels, Daniels’ widow.
Robert Daniels died October 3, 2011, two days after he fell down a flight of 12 stairs and suffered head trauma at an engagement party October 1, 2011, for Savett’s daughter at Savett’s home in Bryn Mawr, Montgomery County, the complaint said.
The complaint alleges Daniels fell down a flight of stairs leading from the breakfast room in Savett’s home to the basement when he had to step out of the way "when a member of the catering staff suddenly and without warning barreled out of the kitchen area, with his arms outstretched in front of him, carrying a large platter of food, and ordering guests to ‘move!’ and ‘get out of the way!’"
Savett’s personal counsel, Harry G. Mahoney of Deasey, Mahoney, Valentini & North, said, "Judge Daniels’ death was an unfortunate accident. Ms. Savett and Judge Daniels were very close friends but Ms. Savett was not responsible for the accident. Judge Daniels was attending a party at Ms. Savett’s home and he was attempting to put some dishes on a shelf inside of a stairway leading to the basement when he lost his balance and fell."
The complaint states that guests were disposing of used dinnerware and glassware on shelves hung on the left side of the stairwell. The complaint further states that guests disposed of their dirty dishes "while standing and/or leaning precariously over the open stairway."
The complaint also alleges that the party was continued even after Daniels was taken to the hospital, and that emergency responders were directed to the back of the property through the side yard "in an apparent effort not to disturb the ongoing party."
"While Judge Daniels was being urgently evaluated for his life-threatening injuries at [the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania], the Savett party continued throughout the evening and into the early morning hours of the following day, uninterrupted and with assurances being made to partygoers that Judge Daniels’ fall was not serious," the complaint alleges. "At no time did Savett come to HUP to offer support to Judge Daniels’ family or to check on the severity of the injuries that he had suffered in her home."
Mahoney also rejected this allegation in the complaint, saying that "when Judge Daniels had his fall, everybody at the party, including Ms. Savett, had nothing on their mind but Judge Daniels. To suggest that the party was going on while Judge Daniels was fighting for his life is ridiculous."
The complaint alleges that Diane Daniels saw her husband fall backward, futilely grab at the doorway and the handrail in order to try to break his fall, and have his head hit the steps several times as he fell all the way down the flight of stairs.
"Judge Daniels’ fatal injuries were the direct result of defendants’ collective negligence, an ill-conceived party plan, and a number of unreasonably dangerous and defective conditions that were allowed to exist on the premises that night, including a negligent catering staff attempting to navigate large trays of food in an overcrowded space, over an open stairwell fitted with an oversized, malpositioned and ungraspable handrail," the complaint said.
Despite emergency surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Robert Daniels had irreversible brain damage and artificial means of life support were withdrawn, according to the complaint.
The original floor plans of the Savett home, including those for the area where Daniels fell, were removed from Lower Merion Township’s Building and Planning Department"in or about February 2012" and never returned, and the identity of the person who signed out the plans was whited out in the registry, the complaint said.
Daniels served on the Superior Court under an interim appointment, and Daniels clerked for Judge Abraham L. Freedman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Among the many leading roles Daniels had in the Pennsylvania legal profession were his leadership of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1982, his leadership of the Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association in 1976-77 and his appointment as chairman of the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Daniels’ "family, including his wife, Diane, and his three children, Samantha, Sean and Chris, remains heartbroken over his passing and the manner in which it occurred. It was a huge loss, and, tragically, a preventable one," Casey said in an email.
Caterer counsel Walter Swayze III, of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Savett also is represented by Allen R. Bunker of Comeau & Bunker.