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December 16, 2005

Jury Awards Paralyzed Construction Worker $32 Million

By Jordan Barab. Reprinted from Confined Space

A jury has awarded construction worker Norman Pelletier $32.1 million for an accident that left him paralyzed below the waist over ten years ago when an overhead steel beam broke loose and struck him.

Pelletier's employer was Berlin Steel, but the jury's verdict was against Sordoni Skanska Construction Co. of New Jersey, the general contractor. The New Jersey Supreme Court granted Pelletier the right to sue Skanska in 2003. Skanska had argued that Pelletier shouldn't be able to sue them because he worked for one of its subcontractors. Under workers' compensation laws employees can't sue their employers.

Pelletier was 42 and working for Berlin Steel Construction Co., a subcontractor for Sordoni Skanska, when he was injured on June 20, 1994, during an expansion project at a Pitney Bowes facility in Shelton.

According to testimony, he and other workers were installing steel decking, and got out of the way as other workers used a crane to place a 2-ton beam overhead. Unbeknownst to Pelletier and the others, one end of the beam was improperly welded to a column.

A few minutes after Pelletier returned to his duties, that end of the beam broke loose and fell, striking him in the head, which was protected by his hard hat, but fracturing his spine, causing paralysis and other injuries.

The Supreme Court's decision in Pelletier's case is already having a broader effect:
According to information compiled by Jury Verdict Research, a Pennsylvania-based research firm, Pelletier's jury award is among the largest known in Connecticut in workplace injury cases.

Before Thursday, the largest verdict was believed to be $5.8 million, awarded in May 2005 to a Montville construction worker. That man was injured in 1998 when a trench collapsed around him and coworkers at a Konover Construction Co. site in Willimantic.

The Supreme Court's decision in Pelletier's case, which allowed plaintiffs to sue general contractors for failing to ensure safety at job sites, was cited in the Konover case.

Even before I wrote this I received an e-mail complaining of the unfairness of this verdict, given the size of the verdict and the fact that Skanska wasn't the employer.

But, as I've written repeatedly (most recently yesterday) the workplace regulatory/enforcement system in this country is fatally flawed. Between workers comp exclusions, ridiculously low OSHA penalties, and the scant likelihood that any given workplace will ever be inspected, there are almost no meaningful legal disincentives for employers to endanger workers, or for chemical companies to manufacture hazardous chemicals. Given the political environment in which we live, lawsuits are one of the few remaining ways to send a strong message to employers (or chemical manufacturers) that there is a serious penalty to be paid for endangering workers.

Every couple of weeks Tammy and I list all the workers we can find that have been killed on the job over the past two weeks. (And I can't even attempt to list those who, like Norman Pelletier, are permanently disabled or who die of work-related cancers and other diseases)

All too often, I hear from the parents or children or spouses or inlaws of these workers. They're angry at the insignificant OSHA penalties and frustrated that nothing came from the death of their loved ones that will at least teach a lesson to those who would be so careless with the lives of other workers.

At least Norman Pelletier and his wife Reine can be confident that his injury -- and the resulting lawsuit that he won -- will serve as a warning to other contractors that cutting corners and taking shortcuts with workers' lives can be extremely costly.

Posted by Jordan Barab at December 16, 2005 07:29 AM