Case over fall in hospital parking lot ends in mistrial

By David Yates | Nov 26, 2008

For the second time in just 13 months, Jefferson County jurors were tasked to decide if a non-profit hospital endangered visitors by refusing to paint an unmarked curb that at least two people claim to have tripped on.

The first time around, jurors found in favor of the plaintiff. This time, the trial ended in a mistrial.

The trial of Charles English vs. Christus Health Southeast Texas began Monday, Nov. 17, in Judge Bob Wortham's 58th District Court, and ended Nov. 24.

A courthouse employee told the Record that jurors could not reach a verdict and a new trial will be slated for sometime in the near future.

Last year, Christus was hit with a large jury verdict for failing to paint a yellow hazard stripe on a parking garage step. In August 2007, a jury ordered Christus to pay Flo Wilson more than $700,000 in damages.

Wilson had missed her step and broke her hip while in the Christus Hospital St. Elizabeth parking garage in Beaumont. Wilson was represented by Tim Ferguson of Beaumont's Ferguson Firm.

Two weeks after receiving the favorable verdict, Ferguson filed another suit on behalf of another plaintiff who allegedly fell over the very same parking lot step. Plaintiff Charles English, 72, claims the fall caused him to break his leg.

English's suit, filed Sept. 6, 2007, in Jefferson County District Court, also named Allco Inc. the construction company that built the hospital's parking garage, as a defendant. Allco reached an out of court settlement with English.

Not swayed by the decision in the Wilson case, Christus was again hoping to convince a jury that people who come to the hospital have a duty to themselves to look where they're stepping.

"We have an obligation to watch where we're going," Christus attorney Wade Quinn told jurors during opening remarks. "Don't be afraid to use your common sense … it's critical in this case."

Quinn, from the Houston firm Barker Lyman PC, also pointed out that jurors themselves probably traversed several unmarked steps and curbs on their way to the courthouse.

"People fall on marked curbs at Christus just as much as they fall on unmarked ones," he added.

Conversely, plaintiff's attorney Alexander Metcalf of the Ferguson Firm argued the curb was "an unreasonably dangerous condition" easily remedied with a little paint.

Metcalf told jurors Christus knew the architect's design called for all curbs to be painted with a yellow stripe but "negligently" ignored the design because of "laziness."

He said evidence showed Christus took "valet parking more seriously than risk management." Metcalf added that because of the injury, English is no longer enjoying his "golden years."

English testified that he does not exactly remember how the fall occurred, but said he used to fish and go dancing on a regular basis before the fall - leisure activities he said are now impeded by the screw in his leg.

According to the plaintiff's original petition, on Oct. 3, 2006, English went to St. Elizabeth to visit a patient. While in the parking garage, "English was severely injured when he fell on an unmarked curb."

The suit faults the defendants with failing to paint a yellow caution stripe on the step, failing to provide adequate parking garage lighting and failing to follow city and state "uneven steps" regulations.

However, Quinn told jurors that there is a fluorescent light directly above the curb.

Even though the curbs were not painted before the two incidents, Christus has since painted the curbs yellow.

English is asking the jury to award him exemplary damages, plus past and future medical expenses, physical pain, mental anguish, disfigurement and impairment.

Case No. A179-969

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