Worksite Accident -Fire In Tunnel Under Construction Causes Smoke Inhalation And Severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

VERDICT: $3,000,000 for Holmes. Liability: City of New York 50%, Grow 50% negligent. Barton settled with Grow-Kiewit during trial for $675, 000. City of New York was granted contractual and common law indemnity against Grow. The other Third- party Defts. were discontinued during trial.

Breakdown: $2,126,908 for pain and suffering; $285,565 for past lost earnings; $368,586 for future lost income; $68,941 for household services; $150,000 for medical and psychiatric expenses.
IV/5-29 Worksite Accident -Fire In Tunnel Under Construction Causes Smoke Inhalation And Severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Jack Holmes and Geri Barton, Adm’x of Joseph Barton v. City of New York, and the Board of Water Supply for City of New York (Third-party Pltf.) v. Grow Tunneling Corp. d/b/a Grow-Kiewit M.K. Mulvihill Electrical Contracting Corp.; Joy Mfg. Co.; and Carol Cable Corp. 7030/78 Verdict 3/27/85 Judge W. Denis Donovan, Bronx Supreme

Pltf. Atty: Harvey Weitz of Schneider, Kleinick & Weitz, Manhattan, for Holmes; Stephen Harris of Mahler & Harris, Forest Hills, for Barton

Deft. Atty: Craig T. Heard of Dominic J. Cornelia, Manhattan, for City of New York; Robert J. Farley of Furey & Furey, Hempstead, for Grow-Kiewit; Joseph McSpedon of Conway, Farrell, Maloney, Stern, O’Coner & Duignan, Manhattan for Mulvihill; Susan Clearwater of Butler & Clearwater, Manhattan, for Joy Mfg.; Charles H. Reinhardt of Rivkin, Radler, Dunne & Bayh, Mineola, for Carol Cable

Pltfs. were employed by Grow Tunneling Corp. On 10/13/77, they were working in New York City Water Tunnel #3, which was then under construction. A short circuit in a high-voltage cable started a fire which caused dense smoke to accumulate in the tunnel, trapping Pltfs. for 1 hour. Pltfs. claimed that the City and Grow committed numerous breaches of their duty to provide Pltfs. with a safe place to work. Chief among those violations were the failure to prevent water seepage into the tunnel which caused the short circuit the failure to provide the workers with an adequate number of masks; the failure to properly connect the cable to a plug; and the City’s failure to properly supervise the construction of the tunnel. Pltfs. called the City’s Director of Safety to establish that he never examined the tunnel before the accident. The City argued that Grow had its own safety supervisor monitoring the job. Grow, before discontinuing its cross- claims, argued that a defect in the cable’s ply caused the fire. In its liability verdict, the jury found for Pltf. on each of 13 counts of negligence.

Jack Holmes (age 51): suffered smoke inhalation at the scene. He claimed that the accident led to a severe post-traumatic stress disorder, evidenced by symptoms such as claustrophobia, agoraphobia, and reactive depression, which totally and permanently disabled him from his job as an operating engineer. The stress disorder, he contended, caused him to develop alcoholism. Pltf. underwent several hospitalizations for alcoholism and emotional problems. Defts. argued that Pltf.’s emotional problems were caused, at least in part, by his wife’s mastectomy in 1978, and that Pltf.’s history of alcohol behavior preceded this incident by several years. Defts. also argued that Pltf. exaggerated the stressfulness of his experiences in the tunnel. In particular, Defts. called several witnesses who contradicted his testimony that he carried Barton (decedent of co-Pltf. who settled during trial) through the tunnel during the fire. Pltf.’s future lost earnings were also at issue. Pltf. earned $3,200 in the 6 months preceding the incident. A representative of Pltf.’s union testified that his future earnings would have been much greater. Pltf. Expert: Dr. Robert McKinley, psychiatrist, Albany. Deft. Experts: Alvin Mickens, economist; Dr. Lawrence Kaplan, psychiatrist, Manhattan.


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