Pennsylvania Record

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Punitive damages claim can proceed in case arising from city worker’s ladder death

By Jon Campisi | Feb 10, 2014

A judge has refused to toss a punitive damages claim in the case of a widow

of a municipal employee who is suing the City of Philadelphia and Louisville Ladder over allegations that the man’s death was caused by injuries from an allegedly defective ladder.

In a Feb. 6 memorandum and order, U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, denied a motion by the ladder manufacturer to dismiss the punitive damages claim only.

Late last year, the Pennsylvania Record reported on Cecelia M. Sweeney’s case against the city and Kentucky-based Louisville Ladder Inc. over the Aug. 15, 2012, death of her husband, which occurred after William B. Sweeney fell from a rolling steel warehouse ladder stand manufactured and distributed by Louisville.

The city employee died four days after he fell from the device while doing work for the city on the 100 block of East Hunting Park Avenue.

The device gave way, causing Sweeney to crash the ground and strike his head on the concrete floor, the lawsuit states.

The plaintiff claims that the ladder her husband was using at the time was missing nuts and bolts.

The worker was taken to Temple University Hospital, where surgeons attempted to alleviate the swelling in his brain, but he ultimately succumbed to his injuries, according to the civil action.

Louisville Ladder subsequently filed a motion seeking to dismiss only the punitive damages claim, leaving the compensatory damages claim unchallenged, records show.

The plaintiff alleges that the company knew or should have known that the ladder was unsafe, and that by selling the ladder “demonstrated willful, wanton and reckless disregard for human life,” thereby entitling her to punitive damages, which, under Pennsylvania law, may be imposed only if a defendant’s conduct is “outrageous due to either the defendant’s evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others.”

In refusing to dismiss the punitive damages claim at this stage of the litigation, Baylson, the judge overseeing the case, wrote that the complaint alleges a “litany of actions and failures to act on the part of Defendant, which must be accepted as true on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.”

The suit, Baylson wrote, also avers that the defendant’s conduct was done with “recklessness and malice.”

“Viewed as a whole in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, these factual allegations are sufficient to plead a claim for punitive damages, but Defendant will have a further opportunity to renew its punitive damages contentions at the close of discovery,” Baylson wrote.

The suit was originally filed at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas but was removed to the federal District Court in late November by defense attorney J. Michael Kunsch.

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