COURT/DATE: Riverside Superior/Aug. 10, 2015
JUDGE: Hon. John Vineyard
ATTORNEYS: Plaintiff- Case C. Barnett, Case Barnett Law Corporation
FACTS: Audio/Visual technician Scharf, 58, volunteered to install electrical wiring at his church Calvary Chapel Temecula Valley, in Temecula. On January 25,2005, Scharf fell off the top of a wall as he was trying to install cable and wiring inside the church.
PLAINTIFFS’ CONTENTIONS: Plaintiffs contended that defendant church and Pastor Nelson were negligent in their operation and management of a construction project at the church. Plaintiff claimed that because of the mismanagement of the project, Scharf was left alone on a Sunday night on a short timeline without adequate tools or supplies to complete the project he was requested to perform.
Plaintiff’s wife allegedly found her husband lying unconscious on the floor with blood and cerebral spinal fluid around his head. The Scharfs sued the church, the officer and director of the church, the owner of the premises, and the general contractor and its owner under various negligence causes of action as well as promissory estoppel and loss of consortium.
DEFENDANTS’ CONTENTIONS: Defendants contended that Scharf was negligent while performing the installation work.
INJURIES: Scharf claimed he fractured his skull, nose, and knee and broke several bones in his shoulder. He was in a coma for approximately three weeks. Plaintiff underwent knee replacement surgery. Plaintiff was later diagnosed with brain injury. The injury allegedly triggered a server mood disorder that was accompanied by psychosis, intense anger and paranoia. Scharf also allegedly showed symptoms of dementia.
RESULT: The jury found Calvary Chapel Temecula Valley and Nelson 49 percent liable and Scharf 51 percent liable.
The parties settled for $3.8 million prior to the damages phase of trial. The breakdown of damages included $2 million for life care and planning and $1.8 million for pain and suffering.
Jury Trial: Jury found church 49% responsible
Settlement: 3.8 Million Dollars
Case Details: Plaintiff, a low voltage electrician volunteered to run low voltage electrical for his church as part of a church remodel. On Sunday, he arrived at church to be told by the head pastor that there was still work left to be completed, and the work must be completed that night. Plaintiff, feeling the pressure to please his church, his pastor and his God, spent the evening completing the job. He ended up falling from a wall of approximately 12 feet, landing on his head suffering a serious traumatic brain injury. After clawing his way back from the edge of death, Plaintiff still suffered from serious cognitive and emotional deficits.
After more than eight years of litigation Case Barnett Law took the reins of this case in 2013. We decided to change the theory of the case to better reflect the true shortcomings of the church and its lead pastor. We argued:
- The reasonable person standard of CACI 401 means a reasonable pastor needs to acknowledge and account for his influence in the Church.
- A reasonable pastor needs to ensure that his congregants are not unnecessarily exposing themselves to harm for the betterment of the Church.
- A volunteer is an employee and should be protected by Cal-Osha standards.
- A church assumes the responsibility for the safety of a worksite, when they choose not to hire licensed individuals.
The third issue would have meant that any Cal-Osha violations by the Church would have made them strictly liable for any injuries suffered by Plaintiff because of those violations. Ultimately, the court found that Plaintiff, as a volunteer was not a statutory employee and therefor not entitled to the protections of Cal-Osha. This issue is novel, as there are no cases directly on point. But, theoretically, if you have an individual, performing work that requires a license, and that individual does not have a license, then that individual becomes an employee pursuant to labor code section 2750.5. But, the court found that a volunteer, who is unpaid, does not get those protections (while someone paid, who is unlicensed, would get the protections).
Ultimately, the jury found that the general negligence of the church and pastor under theories 1, 2 and 4. The church had received a quote to get the work done for $35,000. The Church choose to with this decision, the Church assumed responsibility for the safe construction of the Church.
The defense in the case moved to bifurcate liability and damages. At first, we opposed the motion under the general theory that plaintiffs want the liability and damages issue to buttress each other. After further consideration, we withdrew our opposition to the motion, and decided that a jury would be more likely to put a greater liability on the church, if the amount the plaintiff was claiming in recover was not before the jury.
After 2 weeks of trial, a Riverside jury returned a liability verdict against the Church finding Plaintiff 51% responsible, and the Church and the Pastor 49% responsible.
The insurance company had rejected multiple offers to settle this case at or below the policy limits of $1million. Facing a potential substantial verdict, the insurance company came to the table willing to negotiate.
Rather than spend several more years in litigation regarding this case, and then trying to collect against the insurance company in a bad faith claim, plaintiffs agreed to settle all claims for $3.8 million. This settlement was nothing short of a miracle given that the case had been thrown out on appeal and the highest defense offer was $200,000.
Frequently Asked Questions When it Comes to Injuries That Occur While Volunteering in California
Our Costa Mesa personal injury lawyer frequently gets asked questions such as:
"I got hurt while volunteering. What are my rights?"
The people or organization you're volunteering for, have a duty to provide a safe place to work. If you are performing work that requires a license you are also protected.
The job site is responsible for following all rules and regulations, and they have an obligation to provide a safe working environment.
"I was hurt at work, can I sue?"
If you are injured at work you should file a worker's compensation claim. However, if you are hurt by someone who is not your employer while working, you may be able to file a civil lawsuit against them.
When someone from another trade makes an error that causes your injury or contributes to the injury, you may have a personal injury case. There have been many cases where someone working in a different trade has been negligent and it leads to death or serious injury to someone on a job site.