A Howard County Circuit Court jury has awarded a Columbia man nearly $500,000 in damages against Giant Food Inc. after he slipped on spilled salad dressing and fell in one of the chain's stores.
Mohmoud Fatemi of the 6200 block of Devon Drive was awarded $485,500 -- considered a high amount for any county jury to award -- following a two-day trial that ended Tuesday.
"I think it was a high award . . . but I think it was completely merited," said Bruce Plaxen, a Columbia attorney for Mr. Fatemi.
Mr. Plaxen said jurors in Howard County are often "cynical" and generally conservative, and usually do not grant large awards in civil cases.
"The jury understood the seriousness of the injury," Mr. Plaxen said. "The jury understood the lack of care on the behalf of Giant."
Samuel Deblasis II, a Lanham attorney for the supermarket chain, said he was surprised by the amount awarded by the jury.
"I'd say surprised is an understatement," Mr. Deblasis said. "I think anybody in the legal community would think this was unusual."
He declined to comment further on the jury's verdict but said he plans to file post-trial motions, including a request for a new trial.
Mr. Fatemi suffered a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and several minor injuries when he slipped and fell at the Giant in the Owen Brown Village Center on July 7, 1991.
He is unable to return to work at a deli he operates at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore because of his injuries, Mr. Plaxen said.
Court Administrator John Shatto said the award is the second-biggest in the county during the past six months. The top award during that period, nearly $1.3 million awarded in a medical malpractice case, is also believed to be the largest in the county's history.
Mr. Fatemi, 65, received $14,000 for medical expenses, $60,000 for lost earnings, $244,000 for future lost earnings and $167,000 for noneconomic losses. The jury did not grant any damages for the strain the accident put on Mr. Fatemi's marriage.
The suit filed by Mr. Fatemi originally sought $3 million in damages.
Mr. Fatemi filed suit against Giant Food in August 1992, more than a year after he slipped on a piece of cardboard that covered spilled vinegar and oil salad dressing on the floor of the produce section.
The suit claims the company was negligent for leaving the dressing on the aisle floor and failing to sufficiently warn customers about a potentially dangerous condition.
A store employee testified that he put cardboard over the dressing, set up a yellow warning cone and called a janitor to clean up. Another employee testified that he warned Mr. Fatemi to be careful.
Mr. Fatemi and a witness said they never saw the employee or a warning cone.
Mr. Plaxen and his partner, Harry Adler, presented the jury with a deposition from William Trophy, a specialist in the design of retail stores from Red Bank, N.J.
Mr. Trophy said Giant should have closed the aisle where the dressing was spilled to prevent customers from walking nearby until the spill was cleaned. He added that the company should have established a manual on safety procedures for employees to follow when merchandise is broken or spilled.
Attorneys for Giant attempted to block Mr. Trophy's deposition from being presented to the jury because his expertise is in the selection of sites for stores, demographics and lease negotiations, and not in the operations of grocery stores, court papers stated.
Judge Dennis Sweeney permitted the jury to review Mr. Trophy's reports.