High court upholds $12.75M award to ex-Seattle firefighter
The firefighter was injured after falling through a pole hole at his fire station 10 years ago. The state Supreme Court Thursday uphold the earlier jury verdict, which the city and its insurer have repeatedly fought.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The state Supreme Court has upheld a jury verdict that awarded $12.75 million to a former Seattle firefighter who suffered debilitating brain injuries in a fire-station fall 10 years ago.
Thursday’s unanimous ruling marks the third time a court has upheld the October 2009 judgment by a King County Superior Court jury that found Mark Jones was left permanently disabled after falling through a fire-pole hole in December 2003.
The city of Seattle and its insurance company have fought the jury verdict, hiring investigators before and after the trial to monitor Jones to determine his physical abilities. In 2010, before seeking to have the judgment reversed, lawyers for the city’s insurer released a secretly filmed video showing Jones chopping wood and playing horseshoes and bocce ball.
But King County Superior Court Judge Susan Craighead upheld the jury verdict in October 2010, ruling the silent video might not tell the whole story of Jones’ injuries. The state Court of Appeals upheld the verdict on appeal in February 2012.
Todd Gardner, a Renton attorney representing Jones, said Thursday that his client “did nothing wrong.”
“He is an Air Force veteran, a former police officer and a [former] firefighter. He’s unbelievable in terms of service to our community,” Gardner said. “To make him go back and try this case, when he needs the funding so badly to get his life back together, would be unjust.”
Neither Jones nor his family could be reached Thursday for comment.
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in a statement that the city was “disappointed, of course, with the ruling.”
“It’s important to note that the trial occurred during the previous administration,” Mills wrote in an email.
Mills did not know whether they planned to file a motion asking the court to reconsider.
The city is self-insured for $5 million. Its remaining exposure for the Jones judgment is about $2.75 million. Everything over that amount is covered by insurance.
On Dec. 23, 2003, Jones awoke in a dark bunk room at the Seattle Fire Department’s Station 33 and got up to go to the restroom, according to court paperwork. He walked through the wrong door and fell through a fire-pole hole to the concrete floor below.
Jones was knocked unconscious and, according to court paperwork, suffered a head injury, 10 broken ribs, fractures to several vertebrae and his pelvis, and lung, bladder and liver injuries. Jones claimed his injuries left him unable to work.
Jones, now 50, sued the city, saying the city and the Fire Department were negligent in failing to install a proper guard around the station’s fire pole, or the door that led to it.
While the Supreme Court was unanimous in upholding the King County jury award, the justices were split on their rationale.
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud, who authored the majority opinion signed by five justices, said lawyers for the city had asked for a reversal because the trial judge had not allowed three late-disclosed witnesses to testify. But, McCloud wrote, even though the trial judge erred by excluding the witnesses, the judge did not abuse her discretion and the error did not impact the case.
Justice Steven Gonzalez, in a joint concurrence he authored, offered support of the trial judge, Craighead. Gonzalez, a former King County Superior Court judge, said she “would have been justified in excluding them [the witnesses] earlier and more forcefully.”
Speaking about the controversial video of his client, Gardner said that the defense team never argued that Jones wasn’t able to chop wood, throw horseshoes or partake in other physical activities.
“The man has no judgment, he has a horrible memory, he can’t find direction, his cognitive abilities are impaired,” Gardner said Thursday.
Since his injuries, Jones has split his time between Seattle and Montana. His health has deteriorated and he is unable to work, Gardner said.
Kenny Stuart, president of Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27, said the Supreme Court ruling means Jones and his sister and caregiver, Seattle firefighter Meg Jones, “can finally get on with their lives.”
“For Mark and Meg, this was an issue of principle that profoundly impacts all firefighters, as well as a matter of employer responsibility and justice,” Stuart said in an email.
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.