A Somerset County jury returned a $764,893.48 verdict on February 23, 2018, to a Ringoes woman with permanent nerve damage in her foot. On February 12, 2013, Valeant Pharmaceuticals was working with regulators in California on new medications and needed many of its employees to work late at its former Bridgewater location. Valeant had contracted with Defendant Sweeney Landscaping, LLC, under an “ice watch” contract, to salt the sidewalks outside the building “as necessary” when conditions became “slippery.” The contract also required Sweeney to use Ion professional weather forecasting to remotely monitor the site.
Unfortunately for Frances Gavigan, Sweeney hadn’t been to the site in thirteen hours by the time she left, and all of the salt it had previously applied had washed away in a mid-morning rainstorm. When Ms. Gavigan exited the building, the temperature had dropped below freezing and black ice had formed on the sidewalk. The Ion forecasting system had warned Sweeney about this thaw and refreeze condition in Bridgewater twelve times in the days leading up to February 12, but the company did not return to the site at any time during the day to re-apply salt. As she was walking to her car, Ms. Gavigan slipped and fell, fracturing her ankle. The fracture caused a nerve and ligament to be pulled off the bone; this, in addition to complications from scar tissue, led to surgery. The surgery was complicated by an infection, which required Ms. Gavigan to spend hours in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber and undergo 28 painful debridement procedures in which the dead tissue is removed from the surgical wound. Ultimately, the nerve damage led to Ms. Gavigan developing complex regional pain syndrome, which she described as feeling like a blowtorch being placed on the top of her foot.
Andrew Fraser, Esq. and Tiffany Heineman, Esq., of Laddey, Clark and Ryan, LLP in Sparta, NJ, along with co-counsel Anthony Murgatroyd of Flemington, NJ, tried the case, which lasted two weeks. “This was a very difficult case, and we want to thank the Somerset County jury for attentively listening to all of the evidence.” stated Fraser. After the parties completed their closing arguments, the jury deliberated for three days before reaching a verdict on February 19.
Prior to the trial, the defendant’s insurance company, Selective Insurance of Branchville, offered less than Ms. Gavigan’s medical bills and lost wages to settle, but withdrew the offer after retaining new counsel, Richard Williams, Esq. and Michael Marone, Esq. from McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, LLP, The Defendant, through its new attorneys, was now claiming it did not have a responsibility to make sure the sidewalks were safe for the Valeant employees going home for the night. “It was a very strange position for Selective Insurance to take. Obviously we viewed the damage done to Frances’s life to be very significant; she was out of work for two years,” said Fraser. “Selective’s decision to play hard ball with Frances’s life left us with no choice but to take this matter to a verdict, which is really a shame, because Frances did not want to have to go through this ordeal.” Fraser continued.
According to Heineman, “This case is really unfortunate because it was entirely preventable,” “I think this is a good lesson for both building owners and snow contracting companies to look over their agreements and make sure everyone is clear on what their responsibilities are under the contracts. Valeant and Sweeney spent the trial arguing over whose responsibility it was to salt the sidewalk, but ultimately it was Frances who paid the price,” said Heineman.