Commonwealth Journal

October 25, 2013

Housing Authority loses $3.7 million suit

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — The plaintiffs in a Pulaski Circuit Court case concerning a fatal accident involving a fallen tree from 2009 were awarded nearly 3.75 million dollars on Thursday.

A jury determined that the Housing Authority of Somerset failed to comply with its duty to exercise ordinary care in maintaining its common areas in a reasonably safe condition for individuals on the grounds.

On December 9, 2009, 17-year-old Kaitlyn Griffin — who was pregnant at the time with a son she had named Nicholas Ayden Steele — was unloading a car with her cousin, Joshua Thacker, at Colonial Village in Somerset, which is operated by the Housing Authority.

A large red maple tree, approximately 39 inches in diameter, toppled over and struck the victims, resulting in the deaths of Griffin and Steele and injuries to Thacker.

Damages awarded total $3.736,278, including $1,261,486 to compensate the extent of Kaitlyn Griffin, half a million dollars combines to compensate plaintiffs Rhonda Kay Griffin and Darel Griffin for loss of affection and companionship of their daughter,  $1,254,792 to compensate the estate of Nicholas Ayden Steele, $500,000 to Steele’s father Jason Steele, and $220,000 to compensate Thacker.

“On behalf of the Housing Authority, we of course are disappointed with the verdict,” said the organization’s legal counsel, Hamp Moore, “and we’ll be considering in the next few days the options that are available to us moving forward.”

When asked what he thought the decisive point in the jury’s decision was, Moore said he’d have to “take a look at that and try to reach some conclusions.”

To Michael Eubanks, counsel for the plaintiffs, the key was the understanding “that a business has an obligation ... to act on” information of a potential risk.

“We’re clearly pleased,” said Eubanks. “You can’t bring back those who have died, clearly, but I have to compliment the jury here in Pulaski County. Those folks went through three grueling days. They were extremely attentive.”

The tree involved in the deaths was apparently felled in the midst of gusty wind conditions, though counsel for the plaintiffs pointed out that no other trees in the area fell that day due to weather conditions. The tree in question had a “co-dominant” trunk, with two similarly-sized stems growing out of the same main trunk, which causes a tree to be more likely to fail, according to arborist Ian Hoffman in a May 10, 2013 letter written to plaintiff’s counsel Jane Venters.

In closing arguments, Moore made the case that the kind of “ordinary care” that the Housing Authority was expected to pay toward the trees on the Colonial Village Grounds was “such care as the jury would expect an ordinary business engaged in the same type of business to exercise under similar circumstances,” and that the Housing Authority’s duty was not to “any degree of heightened or specialized care” but that which “an ordinary, prudent person” of the area would exercise in regard to his trees.

“In a perfect world, everybody would have their trees inspected and detect what is not readily apparent,” said Moore, “but that is not that duty that is imposed on you as property owners or homeowners.”

However, attorney Nick Vaughn for the plaintiffs noted that the tree was “dangerous” because of the co-dominant trunk and that it was “just a matter of time before it fell. It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ but just a question of ‘when’.”

The jury had also heard from an individual named Timothy Vanhook, who in 2007 approached Wendi Conley, executive director of the Housing Authority of Somerset,  and noted that he had spotted three different limbs on trees that were apparently rotted.

“He asked Ms. Conley if he could do the work (to remove the limbs), and she said, ‘No, we’ll do that ourselves,’” said Moore in front of the jury. “Not the answer he wanted to receive. ... The testimony of Timothy Vanhook does not do anything to modify (or) change what those that saw the tree in 2009 told you, and that is that there was nothing about the condition that caused the tree to fall that would be apparent to a person exercising ordinary care.”

For the plaintiffs’ representation, however, the testimony that Vanhook had alerted the Housing Authority to potential problems and no tree experts were called out to deal with the issues was a sign that the organization was not providing the “safe housing” they had pledged to residents.

“The people that the Housing Authority charged with the duty of inspecting trees simply weren’t qualified, “said Vaughn. “This is particularly so after Conley took over, because she relied exclusively on maintenance staff to do these inspections. ... (The staff) told you, ‘We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know how to do this. We didn’t have any training. Nobody educated us on how to identify dangerous trees.”

Venters also spoke to the jury, saying that there was “no care in not being proactive and looking for a problem” on the part of the Housing Authority and that the tragedy was preventable.

“We cannot allow businesses to just do what they’ve always done,” said Venters. “We have to ask ourselves, is this how we want our businesses to protect all of us?  ... Is this the standard we want to set? Do we want this to be an example to our businesses in Pulaski County on how to protect the public?”

Venters also recalled the victims, saying “two beautiful lives were lost,” and that it was important to “honor the memory of this beautiful, spunky, tomboy girl and her child,” and also said that Thacker “still suffers unnecessarily” from the injuries he suffered in the accident.

“Kaitlyn was the light of that family,” said Venters. “... Your job (the jury’s) is to focus on the harm that has been caused.”

Plaintiffs in the case were Rhonda Kay Griffin and Derel Griffin, as co-administrators of the estate of Kaitlyn Griffin, and co-administrators with Jason Steele of Nicholas Ayden Steele, and those three individually along with Robin Mullins, mother and next friend of Jason Thacker, a minor.

The original complaint was filed in Pulaski Circuit Court on November 18, 2010.