A Washington County jury sent a strong message — to the tune of $1.4 million in punitive damages — to an apartment complex owner that there must be steps taken to ensure the safety of residents during inclement weather.
“It’s very significant, especially the punitive damages part,” said Robert Bates, who tried the case with his law partner Tony Seaton. “It’s extremely rare to have a punitive damage,” in East Tennessee.
The slip and fall incident happened Feb. 20, 2015, in the parking lot of Beaver Hollow Apartments as Geneva Day and her son were walking from her car to their apartment. Day fell on snow and ice that had accumulated in the parking lot and was not cleared away by the complex management. Day had nearly slipped the day before, according to court documents, and was being cautious while walking as well as warning her son to watch his step due to the snow and ice.
“She messed up her knee pretty good,” Bates said. “She tore all the ligaments in her knee except one.”
After surgery and a lengthy healing process, Day was eventually was able to return, but as a result of the injury she must wear a knee brace now and has drop foot, a condition that affects the nerves and causes the foot to drop while taking a step.
Bates said Day’s career in advanced cosmetology kept her on her feet most of the day, but after the injury she was unable to continue that career. Fortunately, the business where she works found another position for her.
“You had an apartment complex that didn’t care, and it was made obvious to the jury,” Bates said. He’s sure that Olympia, which owns other complexes in Johnson City, will appeal the jury’s decision.
The case was tried in Jonesborough over three weeks late last year. The verdict determined that under Tennessee law, Day’s attorneys showed by “clear and convincing evidence” — the standard in civil cases — that Olympia Management “acted either intentionally or recklessly, thereby entitling the plaintiff to an award of punitive damages against Olympia Management,” Circuit Court Judge Jean Stanley wrote in her judgment order. Beaver Hollow was found to have not acted intentionally or recklessly, which protected the limited partnership from punitive damages.
Bates said two issues were proven with the jury’s verdict.
“One, the jury system still works .... that’s the biggest thing is the power of the jury. Second is it goes to show if you don’t care enough for the people who trust you ... eventually someone is going to have to send you a message.”
The jury did assign some fault to Day in its compensatory judgement of $1,251,396.17. The panel applied 1 percent fault to Beaver Hollow, 50 percent to Olympia and 49 percent to Day. That reduced the compensatory damages to $638,212.17.
With the certainty of an appeal, Bates said Day won’t receive any money awarded to her until the appellate process is complete.