Christopher Peat was working as a floor refinisher on July 1, 2003 in an apartment at Fordham Hill, a nine building cooperative apartment complex in the Bronx.
Mr. Peat, then 37 years old, was applying sealer to the floor of a vacant apartment when he heard a “whooshing” sound. He looked over his shoulder and saw a blue wall of flame headed towards him that he could not escape – before he knew it, his entire body was engulfed in flames.
In that tragic instant, Christopher Peat’s life was forever changed. He was severely burned over most of his body and was hospitalized for many months undergoing excruciating surgical procedures and treatment.
It turns out that the fire was caused when vapors emitted by the floor sealing lacquer were ignited by an open flame from the pilot light in the apartment’s stove.
A lawsuit followed and on June 24, 2011, after 16 days of trial, a Bronx jury returned a verdict finding the apartment complex’s owner, Fordham Hill Owners Corp., fully at fault (it should have shut off gas in the apartment prior to plaintiff undertaking his work) and awarding Mr. Peat pain and suffering damages in the sum of $16,000,000 ($10,000,000 past – 8 years, $6,000,000 future – 32 years).
The jury verdict both as to liability and as to the amount of damages has now been affirmed in Peat v. Fordham Hill Owners Corp. (1st Dept. 2013).
The $16,000,000 affirmed for pain and suffering in this case is by far the most allowed by an appellate court in New York in a burn injury case.
Previously, the courts approved the following amounts in major burn cases:
- $8,000,000 in Weigl v. Quincy Specialties (1st Dept. 2003)
- $5,000,000 in Lei v. City University of New York (1st Dept. 2006)
- $5,000,000 in Moskowitz v. M.I.T. (1st Dept. 1984)
- $4,000,000 in Whitfield v. City of New York (2d Dept. 1997)
As set forth in the appellate court decision, Mr. Peat sustained second and third degree burns over 50% of his body requiring 15 surgeries, extensive physical and occupational therapy and causing significant depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Plaintiff was also awarded $2,681,323 for medical expenses ($481,323 past plus $2,200,000 future – 32 years). This award was based upon the testimony and life care plan of plaintiff’s physical medicine and rehabilitation expert Joseph Carfi, M.D. who in turn based his conclusions as to plaintiff’s future medical needs upon the testimony of plaintiff’s plastic surgery expert Robert Goldstein, M.D. and the testimony of plaintiff’s psychiatrist Paul Ladopoulos, M.D. The defense did not call any medical experts to testify.
Here are additional injury details:
- As he fell to the ground, afire, plaintiff heard his flesh sizzle like “bacon on a skillet” and smelled “burning flesh in the air.”
- He ran down 17 flights of stairs and was still on fire for six minutes until firemen came and extinguished the fire on his body.
- Peat was rushed to Jacobi Medical Center where he was admitted for over three months and underwent 14 surgical procedures (debridements, escharotomies, grafts and a tracheostomy).
- Peat was transferred to Burke Rehabilitation Hospital for over three months of physical and occupational therapy.
- He returned to the hospital in November 2003 for surgery of his right axilla – a scar contracture release procedure to help improve range of motion of his right shoulder and arm.
- Heterotopic calcifications in his elbows causing mobility and range of motion deficits.
- Limited use of hands and deformity of several fingers.
- Extensive scars on his face, hands, shoulder, thighs, buttocks and torso.
- Constant pain, sensitivity and decreased sensory appreciation.
- Before the verdict, plaintiff had demanded $9,000,000 to settle whereas the defense offered $5,000,000.
- In summation, counsel for Fordham Owners suggested $2,500,000 for pain and suffering if plaintiff were to prevail on liability. Plaintiff’s counsel suggested that the jurors award between $22,000,000 and $33,000,000 for pain and suffering.
- Mr. Peat did not receive any medical treatment for his burns during the six years leading up to trial, a fact the defense argued, unsuccessfully, demonstrated that future medical expenses in the millions of dollars were “completely unnecessary” and that claiming them amounted to “piling on.”
- The defense argued strenuously and in detail that the injuries in the Weigl, Lei, Moskowitz and Whitfield cases were far greater than those in the Peat case and that therefore there was no basis for the appellate court to affirm the “runaway verdict” in the Peat case. Plaintiff countered that Mr. Peat’s burns covered much more body surface than in the other cases and that applying current inflation adjusted figures in those cases puts them in line with, or makes their awards more than, the numbers in Peat. The appellate judges in Peat did not address this issue or explain in any meaningful manner the justification for affirming a pain and suffering verdict that was twice the amount of any such verdict previously permitted for similar injuries.
- Although there was evidence that plaintiff could no longer work, his claim for loss of earnings was withdrawn, apparently because his prior earnings were “off the books” and he hadn’t paid income taxes.
On May 13, 2014, the Court of Appeals denied defendants’ motion for leave to appeal. Amicus curiae briefs were filed on behalf of The Voice of the Defense Bar, The Defense Association of New York and Law Reform Alliance of New York.