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Verdict for Plaintiff Affirmed in Case of Unwitnessed Fall Leading to Death Four Months Later

Posted in Wrongful Death

On September 3, 2013, at about 11 p.m., William Tyrell fell down an exterior concrete 16 step staircase at 243 Vrooman Avenue, a two story, two apartment rental building in Amsterdam, New York. Mr. Tyrell, then 77 years old, had been visiting the upstairs tenant. He was found at the bottom of the staircase, unconscious. There were no witnesses to the fall.

243 Vrooman Avenue, Amsterdam, NY

Mr. Tyrell was rushed by ambulance to the local hospital where he was conscious upon admission and diagnosed with the following injuries:

  • basilar skull fracture
  • subdural cranial hematoma
  • cerebral hemorrhage
  • fractured occipital bone

Within a few hours, Mr. Tyrell was transferred by ambulance to Ellis Hospital in Schenectady because his head injuries required a higher level of care than the local hospital could provide. There, he suffered seizures and a craniotomy was performed to alleviate the hematoma. He was placed on a ventilator and then in a chemically induced coma. Unsuccessful weaning from the intubation resulted in a tracheostomy about a month after the fall.

On October 11, 2013, Mr. Tyrrell was transferred to Pathways, a rehabilitation facility in Niskayuna. He returned to Ellis Hospital from Pathways to deal with critical health issues on three occasions in the next three months and again on January 5, 2014, when he died from his severe brain injuries.

Two months before Mr. Tyrell’s death, he commenced a lawsuit against the building owner claiming he fell because the staircase was defective, dangerous, improperly repaired in the past, non-code compliant and deteriorated with missing or broken chunks on several different steps.  There was no opportunity to take Mr. Tyrell’s deposition because his ability to communicate was seriously compromised while he was lethargic, intubated, in a coma and once his tracheostomy was performed.

The action was tried in Fulton County and the jury rendered its verdict on January 13, 2017 finding that defendant was negligent and awarding pain and suffering damages in the sum of $325,000 (four months).

The defendant appealed challenging the verdict as being unsupported by sufficient evidence, arguing that plaintiff could not establish the cause and location of decedent’s fall and, therefore, any finding of causation would have been improperly based upon speculation. In Tyrell v. Pollak (3d Dept. 2018), the appellate court rejected defendant’s arguments and the verdict was affirmed.

Inside Information:

  • There was no challenge by either party as to the amount of the damages awarded by the jury.
  • The building tenant visited by Mr. Tyrell testified that before the accident she had complained at least five times about the condition of the stairs to the defendant’s property manager and called it “a death trap waiting to happen.”
  • Defendant’s investigator photographed the scene after the accident, including previously repaired steps in the middle (steps six and seven) that had flaked and crumbled. There was blood from the decedent both on those middle steps and at the bottom two steps. The defense position at trial was that Mr. Tyrell fell on one of the bottom two steps. The trial judge called it “outrageous” and incredible when the defense failed to produce the photograph of the bloody, crumbled middle steps and the investigator claimed she had no memory of conducting the investigation.