Pike jury awards ‘historic’ $21M verdict

Published 9:13 am Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Pike County jury awarded a $21 million judgment this week in what has been described as a historic case.

After four days of testimony in Circuit Court, the jury debated a little over an hour before awarding Rebekah Blades $21 million in a suit stemming from a work-related accident at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in Brundidge.

Blades, who was a quality control manager at the center, was injured April 18, 2008, in an accident in the banana ripening room. She had sued Thermal Technologies Inc. and Helsel Contracting for damages caused by the accident.

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Mark Andrews, of Morris, Cary, Andrews, Talmadge and Driggers, LLC, represented Blades. “It was a very important case for Rebekah Blades,” Andrews said. “And, it was a very important case for Pike County.”

Andrews said he was impressed with the jury’s verdict – all $21 million was in compensatory damages – in favor of Blades who, according to Andrews, had “suffered horrific, devastating, injuries.”

The company, Thermal Technologies, Inc. (TTI), sells banana ripening systems and was contracted with Wal-Mart to install the systems at Wal-Mart’s Distribution Centers.

According to the case file, a counterbalance cover for the door of a banana ripening room, weighing approximately 40 pounds and three-and-a-half feet in length, fell from a height of almost 30 feet and struck Blades in the face causing severe damage.

“There were these 16-gauge metal trim pieces that were in sections, which according to plans and specifications were supposed to be bolted into place,” Andrews said. “The top pieces that were approximately 30 feet in the air were not bolted and, when Mrs. Blades opened the door, one of these unsecured 16-guage pieces of metal fell down and struck her in the face like a javelin, impelling her in the left cheek and broke her hard palate.”

According to Andrews, the incident severed nerves in Blades’ face, leaving her face permanently numb, and she had to have reconstructive surgery to her mid-face, as well as plastic reconstructive surgery.

“The real damage was discovered, however, approximately 10 days after the accident while she was at home with her mouth wired shut from Orthopedic Reconstructive surgery,” Andrews said. “Doctors realized that she had suffered the onset of epileptic seizures due to the blow to her head. She has developed both epileptic and non-epileptic seizures that are permanent according to the treating physicians at UAB.”

As a result of her condition, Blades has been unable to maintain employment, Andrews said. She was 26 at the time of the accident and holds a degree in Dairy Food Science from Louisiana State University.

Initially, Jim Lentz, the owner of TTI, denied responsibility for the incident and heaped the blame upon the shoulders of Helsel Contracting, whom Lentz’ company had subcontracted with specifically for the purpose of properly, and safely, installing the counterbalance cover for the banana ripening rooms.

However, after an investigation found that TTI was culpable for the accident, Lentz admitted responsibility.

“The jury returned the verdict in this case for compensatory damages only,” Andrews said. “We did not ask for punitive or exemplary damages. We only wanted Rebekah to be compensated fully for her losses and were simply looking for a full recovery for Rebekah.”

Richard Calhoun, local counsel for Blades, said the case was truly of a historic nature.

“This was a historic case in the history of Pike County,” Calhoun said. “The jury did an outstanding job in their duties of rendering justice.”

According to Andrews and Calhoun, the same installation problems were found in various Wal-Mart distribution centers throughout the country.

After learning the facts, Andrews said that he and his colleagues, Cory Driggers and Dan Talmadge, wanted to help Blades to fight the case due to the negligent nature of the incident.

“Judge Thomas Head, the judge that presided over this trial, was extremely impressive and professional in every respect and allowed the parties and the attorneys to present their case fully,” Andrews said. “He was very respectful to all of the lawyers, the parties and the jurors. He is an asset to Pike County, as well as to the Alabama Bench and Bar as a whole.”