Jury awards $34M to restaurant workers at harbor Ruth's Chris

A Baltimore jury on Wednesday awarded more than $34 million to 20 restaurant workers who claimed carbon monoxide exposure in a downtown hotel left them with permanent brain damage, leading to personality changes, memory problems and, in some cases, marital difficulties.

Area attorneys called the judgment phenomenal, particularly considering the level of disagreement over the scope of the injuries. It's likely to be reduced by millions, however: Maryland law places a $710,000 cap on pain-and-suffering damages in nonfatal cases like these, well below the awards some plaintiffs received. Jurors are not told about the cap.

"It's an extraordinary verdict, especially in a case where there was no death, there was no paralysis," said Andrew G. Slutkin, a Baltimore attorney who specializes in catastrophic injury claims and was not involved in the case. "Any time you get a verdict like that in a case where causation and damages are so hotly contested, it's a real victory."

Plaintiffs' attorney William H "Billy" Murphy, who called a news conferences to announce the award, said "justice was done."

Standing on the courthouse steps Wednesday afternoon, Murphy characterized the 2008 gas leak at the Pier 5 Hotel, which sickened employees of a Ruth's Chris Steak House located there, as "the worst carbon monoxide poisoning incident in the history of Baltimore."

His colleague Richard Falcon described the hotel's owner and operator as like "BP down in the Gulf" because they allegedly disabled a safety device that could have prevented the leak.

The Georgia-based attorneys for the hotel owner, TBOP Pier 5 LLC, and operator, MJ Harbor Hotel LLC, did not return messages seeking comment.

They're expected to appeal the verdict, which was handed down after a day of deliberation and a 13-week civil trial in Baltimore Circuit Court. Ruth's Chris was not a party in the lawsuit and is not responsible, Murphy said.

The leak was discovered Feb. 2, 2008, after firefighters responded to a complaint that restaurant employees were falling ill. About 150 people were evacuated from the restaurant that night, and 17 of them received hospital treatment after complaining of dizziness and nausea, according to fire officials.

The Ruth's Chris workers, who ranged in age from their 20s to 40s, filed their first court complaint against the hotel's owner and its operator roughly three weeks after the incident.

An amended version, filed last year, claims that the defendants' negligence and poor equipment maintenance created a dangerous situation that exposed the plaintiffs to "deadly levels of carbon monoxide" over a period of time.

The plaintiffs were supposed to attend the news conference, according to a media advisory, but none showed. And messages left for many of them at numbers listed in public records were unreturned.

Three employees and their wives filed a separate injury count claiming that the exposure affected their romantic relationships through the "loss of, among other things, each other's society, consortium, and conjugal affection, resulting in great mental pain and anguish."

It was a complicated case to try, outside attorneys said, with jurors having to weigh the injuries of 23 individual defendants through testimony, or psychiatric and medical evaluations that chronicled their damages.

Murphy "can really wow a jury and I'm sure that he used all his skill in this case," said Slutkin, who won a $276 million bank fraud verdict with Murphy in 2002.

Plaintiffs received awards of between $11,000 and $1 million in future medical expenses, and between $26,000 and $1.15 million in future lost wages, according to an award chart posted online by The Maryland Daily Record. Those figures could stand, attorneys said.

But the pain-and-suffering awards above $710,000 given to 14 plaintiffs will "almost certainly be reduced," Slutkin said. They ranged from a low of $75,000 to a high of $3.75 million.

Maryland law prohibits jurors from being told about the cap on such non-economic damages, in part so they don't adjust other awards to make up for it.


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