Quintana vs. Richse Realty Corp, et. al. — Settlement During Trial in Premises Liability Case Involving a Woman Killed When an Apartment Ceiling Collapsed

After being struck by large pieces of the ceiling, Geraldine Cruze was rushed to the Jacobi Hospital Emergency Room reporting abdominal pain. She was released 7 hours later and returned home with her 83-year-old stepfather. What Ms. Cruze didn't know, and the hospital failed to detect, was that she had suffered four broken ribs, a lacerated renal vein and other internal injuries. Geraldine went home and rested. Despite pain and difficulty breathing, she believed she was recovering from her injuries. In fact, she was bleeding internally. Over the next three days she bled to death.

A wrongful death and survival action was brought against both the landlord and the hospital. The case against the hospital presented practical problems. Under New York law, damages in a wrongful death case are limited to loss of support, and Geraldine Cruze wasn't supporting anyone. Under the survival claim, her estate could recover for her pre-death pain and suffering, but even that potential recovery was limited by New York courts. The cost of fully litigating a complex medical malpractice case against the hospital was impractical. The decision was made to settle with the hospital for $150,000 and proceed against the landlord under the well established legal principle that a negligent party who injures another is responsible for all consequences of the injuries, even later malpractice during treatment.

The strategic maneuver played out perfectly. The landlord refused to settle and the case went to trial.

The ceiling that collapsed was made of plaster and concrete. We argued that humidity from water leaks elsewhere in the apartment and from steam radiators coupled with age caused the plaster "keys" which holds the plaster and concrete to the wooden lathe to crack and break, allowing a large section to separate from the wooden lathe and fall. The landlord had been called in numerous times to look at other sections of ceiling in the apartment which were also deteriorating. Repairs were substandard and done piecemeal. The presence of plaster workers in the apartment on numerous occasions prior to the collapse was used to demonstrate the landlord's notice of the dangerous conditions.

During the trial the landlord's attorneys attempted to foist responsibility for Geraldine's death on Jacobi Hospital. Kreindler's team successfully argued that the court should bar that evidence, leaving the landlord as the only target at trial.

A creative approach was also required on the damages side of the case given the limitations of New York law. Ms. Cruze lived with her stepfather, but he is not a legal beneficiary entitled to recover for loss of support and services under New York law. Her sole surviving heir is her half-brother and he could make a claim. It was successfully argued that her brother relied on Geraldine to care for his father, and after her death he had to provide additional pecuniary support and additional services to his father.

After three days of trial the landlord settled for $675,000, more than the judge had recommended before trial, bringing the total settlement to $825,000.