Appeals Court Upholds Wrongful Death Settlement in Water Trampoline Injury Case
White Plains, N.Y.
A federal appeals court has affirmed a $6.5 million settlement distribution in a case brought by the family of a young Pennsylvania man who suffered severe, ultimately fatal spinal cord injuries in a water trampoline accident at a resort in Jamaica.
Resort’s Responsibility for the Accident
The water trampoline accident occurred on July 15, 2006. Jarred Smith, then 25, recently graduated from Penn State University with a degree in accounting. He traveled to Jamaica to attend a wedding at Beaches Sandy Bay – a Sandals Resort. The resort failed to provide any instructions to guests on safe use of the trampoline, and failed to position it in water deep enough to make diving safe.
The manufacturer of the water trampoline, known as the Aqua Jump, had clearly specified that the device should be used only in water at least 10 feet deep. The Aqua Jump’s user’s manual also instructed trampoline owners to warn those using it of the risk of spinal cord injuries.
Tragically, Sandals Resorts International failed to heed the clear instructions about water depth and failed to give the requisite warnings. The device was placed in approximately five feet of water. As a result, Jarred Smith fell off of the trampoline into shallow water and struck his head on the sea floor. Jarred was instantly rendered a quadriplegic. He could not speak or take care of normal bodily functions. After eight months on life support, he developed complications with his ventilator and died on March 21, 2007.
Wrongful Death and Survival Actions
During the time Jarred was paralyzed – approximately 250 days –his mother, Ceola Smith, took care of him. The U.S. District Court found ample evidence that mother and son had always shared a strong bond.
By contrast, Jarred Smith’s biological father, Evanuel Tate, offered little, if any, support to Jarred Smith over the years. Tate did not even acknowledge paternity until Jarred was 17, and saw his son only very sporadically. Tate’s support for Jarred Smith, the court found, was practically nonexistent.
Ceola Smith took legal action against Sandals International for Jarred Smith’s injuries. Ceola Smith sued individually for wrongful death, and as administratrix of Jarred Smith’s estate brought a survival action. Greenspan & Greenspan P.C., a New York law firm that also serves clients in Pennsylvania, Florida and other states, represented Ceola Smith.
Sandals fought the case tooth and nail, bringing in a trio of experts to contest the issue of liability and deflect the blame for their misdeeds. Greenspan & Greenspan P.C. countered with nationally recognized experts in their fields to refute Sandals’ position.
After detailed discovery proceedings and multiple settlement conferences involving Leon Greenspan (he is retired and no longer practicing law), Mike Greenspan and insurance companies for Sandals International, Ceola Smith and Sandals agreed on a settlement amount of $6.52 million. Of this amount, the allocation was to be $6,166,666 for the wrongful death action and $353,333 for the survival action.
The settlement proposal called for Evanuel Tate, Jarred Smith’s biological father, to receive $32,000 of the overall settlement amount.
Man Who Abandoned Family Tries to Intervene
On December 22, 2009, at a hearing to approve the settlement, Evanuel Tate objected to the terms – despite the fact that his involvement with Jarred Smith’s life over the years had been virtually nil. Tate nonetheless pressed for a greater share of the settlement proceeds.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania found little merit in Tate’s objections. Indeed, the judge found that Tate had lied at least three times under oath and repeatedly exaggerated his role in Jarred Smith’s life. The evidence showed consistently that Tate’s role amounted to almost nothing in terms of financial or emotional support.
The district judge did agree to allocate a greater percentage of the overall settlement to the survival action. Under the revised allocation, $5,520,000 was for wrongful death and $1 million for the survival action. As part of this change, Tate’s share of the survival action was increased from $32,000 to $36,000.
The judge did not make this change because of any virtue on Tate’s part. Rather, the change in the allocation was made because of clearer evidence about how to account for Jarred Smith’s pain and suffering and his earning potential.
Resolution at Last
Tate appealed the district court’s ruling. On July 14, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the district court ruling in its entirety.
This is a victory not only for Ceola Smith, but also for truth and justice. The Third Circuit’s ruling stopped an uninvolved biological father – who did not even meet his son until the son was 8 years old and never spent a night under the same roof with him –from swooping in and grabbing half of the money from his wrongful death.
Greenspan & Greenspan P.C.‘s Strong Client Service
The distinction between wrongful death and survival actions is a complicated one in the law. This was one of many procedural issues that Greenspan & Greenspan P.C. ably handled on behalf of Ceola Smith.
Mike Greenspan, one of the attorneys for the Smith family, describes the case as one of the most challenging of his career. “It was one of the most difficult and time-consuming cases that I have ever worked on,” Mr. Greenspan said. “This was also one of the most meaningful and gratifying results that I have ever achieved.”
Strong, trustworthy client service is one of the hallmarks of the Greenspan & Greenspan P.C. law firm. With offices in White Plains and New City, the firm services clients throughout Westchester and Rockland counties in New York, as well as in Florida and other states. In addition to personal injury, the firm capably and honorably handles legal problems that include drunk driving defense, tax audits and investigations, and business/regulatory matters.
For more information about Greenspan & Greenspan P.C., contact the firm online.