Update: $2.2 M verdict reinstated for client whose chair collapsed at law firm

by Walter Olson on October 30, 2013

Seeking help with an auto accident claim, Robert Friedrich was in a meeting with an attorney at a personal injury law firm in 2003 when a chair collapsed under him. He won a $2.2 million jury verdict against the law firm of Fetterman & Associates and a retailer that sold the chair, but an appeals court directed a verdict against him, finding a lack of needed causation. Now the Florida Supreme Court has reinstated the verdict [Legal Profession Prof, ABA Journal, earlier]

Perhaps the most remarkable passage in the ABA Journal’s coverage:

An expert for Friedrich said an inspection should have revealed the “weak joint” in the chair blamed for the collapse and said it should be standard procedure for businesses to test chairs every six months, the court recounts. An expert for the law firm said the only test for defects in chairs is to sit in them, and no other test would have revealed the defect that caused the Friedrich accident. …

A dissenting judge would have upheld the directed verdict against Friedrich. Even if the jury agreed that businesses should inspect chairs every six months, the dissenting judge said, there was insufficient evidence to prove that an inspection would have revealed the defect in the chair at issue.

Commenter DKJA at the ABA Journal writes:

So every business in Florida now has to “inspect” every piece of furniture every six months in perpetuity?

Maybe we should just replace all furniture with beanbag chairs. Although I’m sure someone would figure out how to injure themselves on one of them as well.

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{ 27 comments }

1 Bolipton 10.30.13 at 9:11 am

Sauce for the gander.

Bob

2 Fred 10.30.13 at 9:26 am

Unreal. As my father would say, “You’re a smart kid, why did you decide to go to law school and ruin it?”

3 Ron Miller 10.30.13 at 11:21 am

I don’t have a problem with the outcome here. The problem is the legal gymnastics to get there. The idea that businesses have a duty to inspect their chairs every 6 months is absurd.

4 PrimaryCareDoc 10.30.13 at 12:35 pm

I can’t be the only who is experiencing a bit of schadenfreude hearing about a personal injury lawyer getting sued in this situation.

5 Jim Sweet 10.30.13 at 12:39 pm

“replace all furniture with beanbag chairs”

1)too soft
2)too hard
3)humiliation
4)chemical fumes
5)no back
6)spinal issues
7)… oh heck you can add many more…

6 gasman 10.30.13 at 1:03 pm

“A few minutes after the incident, Friedrich was informed that the firm had a conflict and would not be able to represent him in his auto collision case.”
So if the firm had kept him as a client, his ‘symptoms’ would have been attributed to the auto accident. Simply a business judgement on the part of the firm that worked out rather badly for them in the end.

7 wfjag 10.30.13 at 1:53 pm

“Commenter DKJA at the ABA Journal writes:

So every business in Florida now has to “inspect” every piece of furniture every six months in perpetuity?”

Welcome to the world of premises liability. Every other property owner has a duty to inspect and find hazards, and either correct them or warn of their existance. Why should PI attorneys be treated differently?

8 Eric 10.30.13 at 2:05 pm

Hmm. This pits my principles against my appreciation of schadenfreude.

I think I can make an exception for schadenfreude.

9 John Fembup 10.30.13 at 2:09 pm

How often, I wonder, do judges inspect the chairs in their courtrooms?

10 great unknown 10.30.13 at 2:31 pm

@John
I was wondering the same thing. Does this now expose every municipality and governmental body in Florida to additional liability?

11 E-Bell 10.30.13 at 2:45 pm

This is a fundamental flaw in the system: the defendant is forced to pay up because the plaintiff hired an “expert” to come up with an absurdly-rigorous standard of care. For some reason, the jury bought it and now the defendant is left without an appellate remedy.

I am hopeful that Florida’s recent legislative adoption of the Daubert standard will encourage courts to exclude expert testimony that offers only an opinion without any judicial inquiry into its reliability.

12 William Nuesslein 10.31.13 at 8:41 am

The most important datum is E-Bell’s observation : ” For some reason, the jury bought it and now the defendant is left without an appellate remedy.”

I have been reading about 42 satanic ring/ day-care center cases from the 1980’s and 1990s. The testimony deemed credible by American juries would curl your hair.

By the way, an American Jury found runaway Toyotas plausible to the tune of $3 million at roughly the same moment Toyota took the crown for most automobile sales.

13 asdfasdf 10.31.13 at 8:42 am

I’m confused by the Florida Supreme Court opinion, http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2013/sc11-2188.pdf .

The opinion seems to state that because experts reasonably differed on whether an inspection every six months would have found the defect in the chair, the jury finding of causation (that the lack of inspection caused the accident) should be upheld.

I’m confused though as to where the Court finds that *not* inspecting the chair was negligent. The Court says “the issue before this Court is whether the district court reweighed legally sufficient evidence of causation from the plaintiff’s expert witness that a reasonable inspection of the chair…would have revealed the defect” (p. 5).

But it does not follow from that a fact that “a reasonable inspection” would have found the defect, that the plaintiff’s *negligence* cause the accident. Even if it is “reasonable” to inspect every chair every six months, and even if the lack of such inspection caused the accident, it does not follow that the lack of such inspection is negligent. It might also be reasonable to inspect every 20 years, or never.

This is one of the strangest appellate opinions I have seen in a while. The Court, and the plaintiff’s whole case, relies on the bizarre notion that every business must inspect every chair it owns every six months. Not to do that, the Court argues, must be “unreasonable”. But the argument is entirely implicit, the Court is spending its entire time on the question of whether some reasonable inspection would have found the defect, rather than whether any reasonable inspection, including none at all if that is reasonable, would have found it.

14 old_engineer 10.31.13 at 9:58 am

When selecting an “inspector” to review the performance of the chair, what criteria are to be used when selecting this individual? Will the usual OSHA standard of “qualified inspector” be sufficient, even though the actual qualifications are never detailed? “I have sat in chairs so I am qualified to review them?”
As an engineer, of course, one must come up with list of “valid” inspection criteria. Oops I almost forgot, chairs now have a number of fasteners which must be tightened or adjusted. Are there any specific union rules regarding who is qualified to perform the adjustments? I see two new jobs here: Florida Chair Maintenance Technician and Florida Chair Inspector. There may be a conflict of interest if the inspector was also allowed to adjust.

15 E-Bell 10.31.13 at 10:14 am

asdfasdf, I think the dissent raises the point you made. Maybe it’s reasonable to inspect every six months and maybe it’s not. But even the Plaintiff’s expert acknowledged that an inspection would not necessarily have revealed the defect.

The intermediate appellate court’s opinion (found here: http://www.4dca.org/opinions/Aug%202011/08-03-11/4D09-3661.op.pdf) seems to rest entirely on this argument, although as the dissenting judge from the Fourth DCA and the majority of the Supreme Court point out, the Plaintiff’s expert ALSO says that a pre-incident test of the chair “should have” found the weak joint.

Seems to me that the Plaintiff’s expert on causation contradicts himself on the very issue his testimony is introduced to prove. To the extent that the Fourth DCA “re-weighed” his testimony, well, yeah, I think it deserved a re-weighing.

16 gitarcarver 10.31.13 at 11:26 am

asdfasdf,

I am also confused by the experts saying the joint failure was a “fast break” and the plaintiff’s expert saying the break could have occured at any time including up to the second the plaintiff sat in the chair.

I can’t see how inspecting the chair 6 months ago would have prevented a joint failure today.

I am also confused as to why the store which sold the product was held twice as accountable for damages as the law firm. The store did not make the chair, and had no reason to expect it would fail.

If the standard is to inspect the chair, does that mean the furniture store has to do the inspecting as they are on the hook for more than the law firm?

17 Jim Collins 10.31.13 at 12:24 pm

Do chair manufacturers now have to carry insurance on every chair that they sell in the State of Florida? Who defines what a reasonable inspection is? Are businesses going to have to maintain an inspection log for each chair that they have?

I’m thinking of starting a chair inspection service in Florida. Iwonder how much liability insurance I’d have to carry?

18 Richard 10.31.13 at 12:58 pm

asdfasdf: The issue before the Florida Supreme Court was whether there was sufficient evidence to establish causation. It appears that the expert testified that an organization exercising due care for the safety of its invitees would regularly inspect the joints of chairs by flexing them, and the jury determined the defendant failed to exercise due care on that basis. The appellate court subsequently determined that the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence that the negligent conduct (as determined by the jury) had caused the injury, and the Florida Supreme Court disagreed.

19 Bill Poser 10.31.13 at 11:09 pm

I am amazed that the plaintiff managed to sustain injuries worth $2.2 million from a chair collapse. Did the law firm seat its clients in life guard chairs?

20 Hugo S. Cunningham 11.01.13 at 11:45 am

Like Bill P., I am suspicious of the $2.2 million figure.

But, like Ron M., I might award the plaintiff something. What do juries usually do if the chair collapses at a chain store, rather than at a we-all-hate-them lawyer’s office? I suspect jury behavior is influenced by their expectations whether the defendant and the plaintiff have insurance.

In a perfect society, there might be a workmen’s comp schedule of damages for accidents that are random, not the result of real negligence. Or, in some Western and Northern European societies, national health insurance would cover the injury without need to sue anybody.

21 Ron Miller 11.01.13 at 1:53 pm

These juries. Boy they are silly.

A malpractice defense lawyer got hit with a big verdict here in Maryland recently. Here is what he said:

“The jury’s verdict is significant because it makes the case for much needed reform of Maryland medical malpractice law. First, in a brain-damaged baby case, the issues are of such complexity that it cannot be
expected that juries with limited education can possibly understand the issues, especially when their knowledge of the medicine comes from highly paid biased experts….”

Many of you are nodding your heads. But there is one little fact that the lawyer did not mention: the plaintiff did not pray a jury trial. The defendant – the same lawyer with this quote – did.

Juries don’t always get it right. Do you guys think you would always agree with a judge’s decision? And how many of you who wave the constitution around have read the 7th Amendment and understand the basis for it?

And, I’ve said it here before, sorting through the issues and voting for the right candidate is far more complex than being a juror where everything is spoon fed to you and there are procedural rules that give both sides a chance.

Jim, I don’t agree with the verdict but let’s not create issues that don’t exist. You have a general liability policy that would certainly cover this. You don’t need defective chair coverage.

22 Jason Barney 11.01.13 at 3:43 pm

In my 14 years of claims and litigation management have come to appreciate and respect the role of the jury system–yes, even in civil cases. They do get it right more often than what some may think given the press reporting of some odd verdicts. Many of those are where the jury arguably got it wrong–or else it might not be newsworthy.

And, yes–it is sometimes difficult for laypeople to evaluate complex issues when each side’s expert(s) has their own spin to it. But again, they usually get it right–in my experience. There are a handful or more of venues that have more dimwitted jurors than others, that’s for sure.

And with the above example of a brain-damaged infant–yeah, too often perhaps sympathy trumps logic (if that was actually the case). If we want full and fair compensation for innocent victims it be codified and paid from the general fund–not by the nearest deep-pocketed defendant.

23 Ron Miller 11.01.13 at 4:42 pm

I don’t disagree with any of that Jason except the part about a compensation fund. There are so many birth injury claims were there is no case. If we start funding injuries because there is an injury… I don’t think there is the money out there to fund those cases.

There are a lot of birth injury cases with defense verdicts, the vast majority actually. It is just the big verdicts that you here about.

A part of this animosity towards juries is a substitute for another idea embedded in our culture: if you don’t agree with me, you are stupid.

The example I gave above is classic. Lawyer’s client gets a jury trial only because he asks for one. Why? He thought he would get a better outcome on average with a jury. Then when the jury disagrees, they are idiots who couldn’t be trusted to process the information.

Jurors do bring their life experiences with them. This often clouds sound judgment and reason. But there is no path around this problem. Judges also suffer from this affliction. It is the disease of being human.

24 wfjag 11.04.13 at 11:35 am

Must have been the eclipse — I agree with Ron.

Lawyers also bring their lift experiences to the case, and can be blinded to the fact that not everyone else (sometimes even most people) do not agree with them. Additionally, many lawyers believe that their personal eloquence and charisma will carry the jury. And, there are the lawyers who shoot from the lip with their client and then have to find an excuse on why the jury didn’t agree.

The justice system is a system run by people, with all the strengths and faults any system run by people will have. The lesson from this case is if you invite the public into your business, don’t cut corners by buying furniture that isn’t solidly built — despite what the high-priced interior decorator might have said.

25 Jim Collins 11.05.13 at 5:13 pm

I was referring to how much liability insurance my ficticious company would need in case one of the chairs that it inspected failed.

26 Ron Miller 11.05.13 at 11:10 pm

Wfjag, I’m concerned too. Fear not. We will almost certainly disagree in the next thing.

Jim, I don’t think the amount of liability coverage should be increased with an eye towards the risks of broken chairs. There are more likely risks out there. Again, I’m not faulting your premise. I just don’t think that particular concern is a big one.

27 Hugo S. Cunningham 11.06.13 at 7:31 pm

It is not clear to me whether this chair collapsed for no reason at all, or whether, like in most cases, there was user culpability, eg collapsing into it, leaning back too far, playing hockey with wheeled office chairs, etc. Maybe every office that provides a chair should station a no-nonsense junior-high teacher armed with sturdy paddle to deter customer misuse.

(Actually, like Ron, I suspect the cost of chair lawsuits will fit seamlessly into the cost of general business liabiiity insurance.)

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