Jury awards $4.3 million to injured Miami port worker


Case: Willie R. Walker v. Florida Power & Light Company, et al.

Case no. 08-29760-CA-15

Description: Negligence

Filing date: May 28, 2008

Trial dates: Sept. 16-Oct 4, 2010
Jury Award: $2.99 million

Judge: Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Israel Reyes

Plaintiff attorney: Michael Winkleman and Jason Margulies, Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman, Miami.

Defense attorney: Stephen A. Smith, Pallo Marks, Hernandez Gerchijlan & Demay, Palm Beach Gardens for FPL and Danella; William Reese and J. Daniel Ennis, Lane Reese Summers Ennis & Perdomo, Coral Gables, for Delta.

Details: Willie Walker’s decades-long career as a long-shoreman at the Port of Miami came to an end July 31, 2004.  While operating a 167,000-pound top loader moving cargo for shipping company Maersk, the pavement collapsed under him. Walker, then 49, was tossed like a rag doll inside his driver’s cage 14 feet above the ground.  He has just driven over the open end of a tunnel being built to carry underground electrical lines from an FPL substation at the port to Fisher Island.  The drilling has just been completed, and construction was still under way to run cables beneath Biscayne Bay.  The violent shaking inside the cage injured his back, requiring surgery to fuse three vertebrate and leaving him with a restricted range of motion.

Walker filed a worker’s compensation claim against Maersk, and his attorneys reached a settlement that allowed him to receive weekly payments for the rest of his life.  But his attorneys, Michael Winkleman and Jason Margulies, also filed a negligence suit against companies that built the pipeline.

Plaintiff case: Winkleman and Margulies sued drilling company Delta Directional, construction company Danella and FPL.  The power company maintained it was free of all responsibility after hiring Danella, which hired Delta as a subcontractor.

Winkleman, working on his first trial since joining the firm as an associate, assumed there was an agreement between FPL and Miami-Dade County, the port owner, making the company liable for what happens on land where it has projects.

“We anticipated that the document had to exist because FPL can’t just go on properties and just start work.  We knew there had to be some sort of easement”, Winkleman said.

FPL provided no agreement with the county.  So Winkleman instead subpoenaed county officials in July.  Weeks later, he received the agreement.

“In terns of keeping FPL on the hook, that was the smoking gun”, he said.

Winkleman argued for sanctions, claiming the company intentionally withheld the document.  Reyes imposed sanctions on FPL, holding the company responsible for all plaintiff fees and costs.

In trial, Walker’s two-man team argued Danella was responsible for failing to keep traffic away from the site.  They brought in a port supervisor to testify barricades were brought to the site days after Walker’s accident, which they argued showed the company knew it was in the wrong.

Defense case: Delta argued it left the site days earlier and wasn’t to blame.  Smith, who represented FPL and Danella, maintained Maersk was to blame for moving barricades that marked the point where the pipeline went underground.  Smith also blamed Walker for driving into an area he shouldn’t have.  Before the case went to jury, the judge determined FPL was not actively negligent, Smith said.

Outcome: The judge held a two -phase trial, one for liability and another for damages.  Jurors awarded $4.39 million and found the injured worker and Delta without fault.  The jury assigned 53 percent liability to Danella, 15 percent to FPL, and 32 percent to Maersk, which was not a defendant at trial.  That reduced the award to $2.99 million.

Post-Verdict: As the jury reached its verdict, attorneys from both sides settled for an undisclosed amount.  Smith said the judge dismissed his sanctions order once the settlement was reached.

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