A stove pilot light ignited on May 20, 2004, as plaintiff Dacio Pessoa, 18, applied lacquer to a living room floor. The flaming vapors engulfed Pessoa and burned 57 percent of his body. Responders found Pessoa with his pants burned off and skin dripping from his legs and arms.
Pessoa, subcontracted by Alan Rappaport Flooring, had been lacquering the floor for a new tenant in the building, owned and managed by Pacific Avenue Realty Associates and Jasco Management Corp. A mattress, linoleum and other items in front of the stove hid the pilot light. Pessoa did not speak English and could not read the lacquer container's warning.
Pessoa sued Pacific Avenue Realty Associates, Jasco Management Corp. and Alan Rappaport Flooring. All were responsible for the dangerous condition, counsel argued,according to Vincent Gallagher, an expert on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Pacific Avenue Realty Associates and Jasco Management Corp. should have met to review the hazards of the activity.
The responding firefighters determined, with photos of the pilot light still alit, that the fire started in the pilot light. Pacific Avenue Realty Associates and Jasco Management Corp. denied negligence. Experts from Affiliated Engineers, Inc. argued that the subcontractor, Alan Rappaport Flooring, should have bewared the condition and better trained its employees.
Alan Rappapoit Flooring denied negligence, arguing that Pacific Avenue Realty Associates and Jasco Management Corp. failed to provide a safe working environment void of hazards.
Furthermore, Pessoa knew of the dangers associated with his work and thus assumed responsibility. All defendants argued that Pessoa should have inspected the pilot light.
Dacio Pessoa was in an induced coma for 50 days while physicians performed 47 skin graphs. He remained hospitalized for three months and accrued $1 .6 million in medical bills. All agreed that the burns were causally related to the ignition of the pilot light. The defense did not contest the damages.
RESULT The defense appealed a $4 million arbitration award, with 15 percent comparative negligence against Dacio Pessoa. With prodding from Judge Louis Locascio, the case settled for $2,150,OOO on the Friday before Thanksgiving. The primary carrier for Pacific Avenue and Jasco, Tower Insurance Co. of New York, will pay $1 million; excess carrier Zurich Insurance Co. $650,000; and for Rappaport, Selective Insurance Co. paid $500,000. The award will be split three ways between medicals, attorneys fees and Pessoa's take-home amount.
Zurich Insurance Co. - Pacific Avenue Realty Associates, Jaseo Management Corp.
Selective Insurance Co. Alan Rappaport Flooring
Tower lnsucance Co. Pacific Avenue Realty Associates, Jasco Management Corp.
Plaintiff Expert(s) Vincent Gallagher, employee safety, Audubon, NJ
Defense Espert(s) None reported
Editor's Note: This report contains information gleaned from an article in The New Jersey Law Journal and interviews with both sides.