W. Jeffrey Robins vs. Regal Entertainment Group
Christopher Faenza obtained a defense verdict on behalf of Regal Entertainment Group in this wrongful death and survival action where plaintiff alleged claims of negligence, as well as violations of the Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Disabled Persons Act, and the California Public Accommodations Law, premised on an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").
On the evening of March 9, 2004, the decedent, 83-year-old William R. Robins, went to see a movie with his step-daughter at the Regal Cinemas in Tustin. Mr. Robins walked with the assistance of a four-point cane. He entered the theater without any difficulty by using the "up" escalator. After the movie, he left the theater by taking the "down" escalator. When Mr. Robins stepped on to the "down" escalator, he lost his balance and fell to the bottom of the escalator. Mr. Robins sustained a comminuted right humeral fracture from the fall. His medical course was complicated by a methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) wound infection, deep venous thrombosis, and a chronic ileus. After several transfers between the hospital and the rehabilitation center, Mr. Robins passed away 103 days after the fall.
Decedent's son, W. Jeffrey Robins, argued that the absence of directional signage for the existing elevator on defendant's premises constituted a violation of the ADA. He also argued that the theater was negligent in failing to provide such signage, and was negligent in failing to adequately train its personnel to deal with disabled people. Furthermore, plaintiff claimed that Mr. Robins' death was caused by the fall, arguing that the medical complications following the fall exacerbated decedent's pre-existing condition ultimately causing his demise. Plaintiff claimed past medical expenses in the sum of $650,000 and sought enhanced damages, including treble damages and attorneys fees, based on the alleged ADA violation.
In defense, Mr. Faenza and Ms. Douglas contested liability by presenting expert testimony that the absence of directional signage did not constitute a violation of the ADA because it did not constitute a communications barrier that was structural in nature. Testimony from several theater employees was presented to dispute plaintiff's claims of negligent training. The cause of death was also disputed by the defense. Upon autopsy, the cause of death was attributed to severe occlusive coronary atherosclerosis due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. The defense presented expert testimony that Mr. Robins' pre-existing medical condition, coupled with the autopsy results, showed that Mr. Robins died as a result of sudden cardiac failure which was unrelated to decedent's fall.
After deliberating for three hours, the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant on the negligence and ADA-related causes of action. Because plaintiff rejected defendant's statutory offer to compromise, and sued under the Disabled Person's Act (which mandates that the prevailing party be awarded attorneys' fees), Yoka & Smith sought reimbursement of Regal's fees and costs in the amount of $250,666.89. Plaintiff opposed defendant's cost bill, arguing that he should not be liable for the fees or costs in his capacity as a successor in interest. Regal argued that plaintiff should not be permitted to escape liability simply due to his status as a successor in interest. Judge Gregory H. Lewis of the Orange County Superior Court agreed with Regal's position and ordered plaintiff to pay Regal the total amount of its defense fees and costs.
Plaintiff appealed the award of Regal's attorneys' fees and expert fees. Following significant briefing of the issues on appeal and oral argument, Division Three of the Fourth Appellate District affirmed the award of attorneys' fees and on appeal, totaling approximately $300,000, and further ordered that Regal be awarded its fees and costs on appeal. In its unpublished opinion, the court confirmed that Civil Code section 1026 did not bar the imposition of costs against plaintiff in his capacity as a successor in interest. Further, the court found that the statutory offer to compromise served upon plaintiff by Yoka & Smith was valid and enforceable.
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