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Does Seattle Firefighter Deserve $12.75 Million?

Does Seattle Firefighter Deserve $12.75 Million?

The Seattle Times via YellowBrix

October 09, 2010

KING COUNTY, WA – A King County judge said Friday that the “mental picture” she envisioned of a Seattle firefighter awarded $12.75 million for injuries he suffered in an on-duty fall didn’t square with secretly shot video later showing him chopping wood and performing other activities.

But Superior Court Judge Susan Craighead also sharply questioned a request by attorneys for the city’s insurers to vacate the verdict and grant a new trial, saying the silent video might not tell the whole story.

The firefighter, Mark Jones, was awarded the sum last year by a jury that found he was left permanently disabled as a result of the fire-station fall.

Craighead said that to find Jones was exaggerating his injuries, she would have to conclude that a lot of witnesses who testified about his severe limitations “were in on creating a false impression for the jury.”

She said she hoped to issue her ruling Oct. 18.

The city’s insurers stand to pay $7.75 million of the judgment, the amount over the city’s $5 million in self-insurance, according to the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.

Attorneys for the insurers asked for the new trial, alleging deception after hiring investigators who shot video of Jones chopping wood, playing a game of bocce ball, competing in a horseshoe-throwing tournament and breaking into a victory dance.

Timothy Parker, an attorney for the insurers, told Craighead Friday that Jones’ claim of full disability is only apparent when he’s in a courtroom or medical office, while the firefighter’s attorney, Dick Kilpatrick, labeled the conduct of the other side “beyond the pale.”

City Attorney Peter Holmes did not know of the videotaping until after it occurred and would prefer a settlement, said Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for Holmes’ office.

Kilpatrick said the highest settlement offer so far has been $5 million, which he called insulting compared to what the jury awarded.

Jones, 46, of Bothell, suffered his injuries in 2003 while on temporary assignment at Station 33. He awoke in a dark bunkroom, walked through the wrong door while looking for the restroom and fell through an unguarded fire-pole hole to the concrete floor below.

Jones was knocked unconscious and, according to court paperwork, suffered a head injury, 10 broken ribs, fractures to several vertebrae and his pelvis, and lung, bladder and liver injuries.

Jones said his injuries resulted from negligence on the part of the city and the Fire Department for failing to install a proper guard at or around the fire pole, or the door that led to it.

Jones tried to keep working by performing light duties, but retired in September 2009 after more than 10 years as a Seattle firefighter.

To date he has received about $1 million from worker’s compensation benefits.

The jury verdict has been under appeal by the city since last fall, and neither Jones nor his guardian, his twin sister Meg Jones, a Seattle Fire Department lieutenant, has received any of the judgment.

Investigators captured video of Jones during a camping trip at Fort Flagler State Park in April and while vacationing in Montana in June.

After viewing the videos, two of the three physicians hired by the city to evaluate Jones in February 2008 to determine whether he was “totally and permanently disabled” — the criteria for a workers’ compensation claim — have reversed their findings, according to attorneys for the insurers. The third physician has since died.

The city has said in court papers it wants him reevaluated by doctors.

Jones’ lawyers argued in previously filed court papers that the video doesn’t reflect serious brain injuries he also suffered.

The insurers’ attorneys countered that more than 11 hours of video “speaks to both physical and mental condition.”