On August 14, 2003, a blackout struck the entire Northeast resulting in widespread electrical power outages. Joseph Schaefer, a New York City police officer, was assigned to assist in the evacuation of Pennsylvania Station.
Schaefer first led dozens of passengers from trains stuck inside tunnels at the station.
Then, he came upon two women trapped in an elevator stuck between floors at the station. One of the women was asthmatic. After lowering himself into the elevator cabin through an emergency hatch, the 42 year old officer administered oxygen to the asthmatic woman and then hoisted both women up through the hatch to safety.
A similar elevator rescue, this one at a city subway station:
Alone in the dark cabin and without a ladder, Schaefer was handed milk cartons to stack up and stand on so he could get out. He stood on the boxes and reached up to two other rescuers atop the car. Unfortunately, as he was being lifted out, Schaefer’s arm was severely cut on a protruding jagged metal edge of the hatch. He then let go, swung to his left and struck his knee on the elevator wall as he fell down inside the cabin.
Schaefer’s left knee injuries ultimately proved to be quite severe (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome – CRPS, also called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy or RSD) and he sued the transit authority under General Municipal Law Section 205-e, the so-called police officers’ statute, claiming negligence in the failure to provide proper access to the disabled elevator.
On November 27, 2009, after a two week trial, a Manhattan jury upheld Schaefer’s claims and found that engineering code violations requiring a rescue plan and suitable equipment (such as a ladder) caused plaintiff’s injuries.
The jury then awarded Schaefer pain and suffering damages in the sum of $2,060,000 ($360,000 past – 6 years, $1,700,000 future – 29 years).
The trial judge granted the defendant’s post-trial motion and dismissed the entire case on the basis that the code violations did not form a sufficient legal predicate for relief under the statute. The appellate court disagreed and last week issued a decision in Schaefer v. New York City Tr. Auth. (1st Dept. 2012) reinstating the verdict.
The court decisions do not mention or discuss the pain and suffering damages because neither party appealed on that issue or argued that the amount awarded was either excessive or inadequate. The $2,060,000 pain and suffering award is nonetheless significant and we have uncovered the details of plaintiff’s injuries:
- deep arm laceration requiring 10 stitches to close at the ER on the day of the accident
- painful knee requiring arthroscopic surgery two months later
- after treatment in the ER, Schaefer returned to work on the day of the accident but the next day his knee pain was so bad that he was unable to work for two months, then he returned to light duty for two months after knee surgery, and was thereafter declared totally disabled by the N.Y.P.D. Disability Board in November 2004
- extensive pain management treatment: trigger point injections (into the knee, to deaden the nerve), a lumbar sympathetic block injection, cryotherapy (inserting a probe into tissue to freeze nerves), physical therapy, narcotic medication (Vicodin), Lidoderm patches (numbing medication) and Cymbalta (an antidepressant also used for chronic pain)
Doctors for both plaintiff and the defendant testified at trial that Schaefer was suffering from CRPS , which was described as a chronic neurological condition that is typically characterized by severe burning, pain, pathological changes of bone and skin, excessive perspiration, swollen tissue, and/or increased sensitivity to physical stimuli. Plaintiff’s doctor further testified that his condition was permanent with chronic pain for the rest of his life affecting walking, standing, sleeping and eating habits and interpersonal relationships with depression becoming inevitable.
Plaintiff’s neurosurgeon recommended surgical implantation of a spinal cord stimulator. (wires and batteries implanted surgically send electrical impulses to spinal cord):
Schaefer testified that the pain is daily and varies from hour to hour but has gotten worse over the years affecting and altering all aspects of his daily life. For example, he said he could not watch his daughter compete in a Teen Idol contest becasue he could not sit without moving around and annoying others.
- Schaefer first became a New York City police officer in 1991. He was assigned to the Transit Authority and through the years received many honors and decorations – including being named the city’s cop of the month in September 2001 for his work at Ground Zero.
- Schaefer’s total jury award was $5,280,584 ($2,060,000 for pain and suffering, $2,673,154 for loss of earnings and benefits and $500,000 for future medical expenses). In addition, his wife was awarded $100,000 for loss of consortium.
- Defendant challenged as excessive the awards for loss of earnings and benefits and future medical expenses but the appellate court ruled that they were not excessive. While the jury erroneously concluded that plaintiff had a 29-year worklife expectancy (his life expectancy was 29 years but as of trial his worklife expectancy was 14 years), there was unrebutted expert economic testimony for the plaintiff that his lifetime earnings and benefit losses greatly exceeded the amounts awarded.
- Schaefer had injured his knee before this incident, in May 2002, during an arrest altercation. He underwent arthroscopic surgery a few months later for a suspected torn meniscus (in fact, there was no tear, but instead plica and chondromalacia) and he returned to full duty in May of 2003.