16-year-old J.W. was climbing a portable rock wall built and designed by Vertical Reality, Inc. The wall included an auto-belay system, which was manufactured and designed by ASCO Numatics, Inc. When a climber fell or decided to descend and let go of the wall, pneumatic cylinders in the system were designed to gently lower the climber to the ground.
As J.W. let go of the wall to start descending, a cylinder in the system failed and lost pressure, causing him to fall 12 feet to the ground.
J.W. suffered a fracture to his right distal tibia and fibula with displacement of the articular surface. The fracture was a tri-plane fracture, which generally occurs during adolescence, before complete closure of the leg’s growth plate. J.W. underwent open reduction total fixation surgery. His treating physician indicated that the fracture would likely result in early onset arthritis in the ankle. J.W. may require steroidal injections for pain, and if those fail, surgery may be required to fuse the ankle.
A guardian on J.W.’s behalf sued Vertical Reality and ASCO Numatics, Inc., alleging that the equipment was defectively designed and manufactured and was unsafe for its intended use. Specifically, the plaintiff contended that the cylinder that failed had a defective cast aluminum retainer, which caused the cylinder to leak and fail.
The plaintiff presented evidence showing that more than a year prior to the incident, Vertical Reality began receiving complaints about the auto-belay system, and in particular, about cylinder leakage and failures. The failures involved cylinders that were equipped with cast aluminum bushing retainers, which developed cracks and had voids compromising the system’s effectiveness.
Other evidence showed that ASCO Numatics replaced the cast aluminum retainers on the cyclinders already in Vertical Reality’s possession with machined aluminum bushing retainers, which were stronger than the cast aluminum ones. Although both companies were aware of safety issues involving the original cylinders, neither company advised rock wall users of the defect or recalled the faulty cylinders or hydraulics, the plaintiff claimed.
The defendants counter-claimed against each other for contribution and indemnity.
The plaintiff filed an offer of judgment for $125,000. Neither defendant made an offer of settlement.
The jury awarded the plaintiff $358,000, including $17,000 for past medical expenses and the remainder for pain and suffering. The jury allocated fault at 70 percent to Vertical Reality and 30 percent to ASCO Numatics.
The trial court subsequently denied ASCO Numatic’s motion for a new trial on allocation of liability, and the court entered judgment, with fees and costs, of about $548,900.