A DeKalb County jury entered a record verdict for almost $6,000,000 on Tuesday afternoon for a 33 year-old Winnebago man injured when the aerial lift he was working on failed causing him to fall 20-25 feet. In September 2015, 29 year-old Jeremy Heckelsmiller was hired to remove a chimney on a rental property in DeKalb when the upper boom arm of the lift he was working on suddenly snapped and threw Heckelsmiller to the ground. Plaintiff brought claims against the owner and operator of the lift and the owner of the rental property who arranged for the work to be done.
Plaintiff claimed the owner and operator of the lift, Tom Anderson, failed to provide a safe lift to the jobsite and failed to get annual or biannual inspections of the lift as required by industry standards and the owner’s manual. Anderson bought the lift in 1985 and never obtained regular inspections by certified inspectors. Anderson claimed an inspection would not have revealed the crack that led to the boom’s failure because the boom was covered in insulation by the boom truck’s prior owner, Comed. The lift was manufactured in 1969.
Plaintiff further claimed that the owner of the rental property, Brian Morsch, failed to provide a safe jobsite. Plaintiff claimed that pursuant to industry standards, including OSHA, Morsch had a duty to provide Heckelsmiller a safe workplace. Morsch claimed that he was not responsible because he did not retain any control over the work and that both Heckelsmiller and Anderson were independent contractors. Heckelsmiller had done work for Morsch on a handful of occasions and Morsch claimed he relied on Heckelsmiller’s expertise to do the work. Morsch and Anderson both testified that Anderson was not paid to provide or operate the lift and was simply doing Morsch a favor as a long time friend. Both claimed that because there was no money exchanged for Anderson’s work, it was not a construction site that required compliance with industry safety standards.
Heckelsmiller was thrown to the ground and sustained serious injuries requiring him to be airlifted from Kishwaukee Hospital to OSF St. Anthony. His injuries included a ruptured stomach, multiple spinal fractures, head injury, kidney failure and severe deconditioning. He had to learn to eat, speak and walk again over a period of months. Heckelsmiller has recovered to some degree but has residual weakness and pain. His skills include roofing and manual labor, but he has been unable to return to work.
The $5,968,822.77 verdict included $500,000 for disfigurement, $1,500,000 for loss of normal life, $3,000,000 for pain and suffering and almost $1,000,000 in medical bills. The jury assessed 50% liability to both Anderson and Morsch. Based on the Jury Verdict Reporter, the verdict represents the highest reported DeKalb County Work Injury award ever . The prior high DeKalb County Work Injury award was a $2.6 million settlement reported in 2001. It also represents DeKalb County’s third largest personal injury verdict ever.
Heckelsmiller was represented by Matthew Ports of Pfaff, Gill & Ports, Ltd. Anderson was represented by Tim Young and Ron Payne of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP. Morsch was represented by Corry Keilin of Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A. The case was tried before the Honorable William P. Brady. The lawsuit was titled Heckelsmiller v. Anderson, et al, 16 L 16.