One of the questions that I am asked on a regular basis is, “What is the most interesting case that you have worked on?” I have always struggled with this question, especially in recent years, as our firm has begun to work on more tragic cases. They are not appropriate for social settings, simply because they are so sad. That’s why the Spiderman case is worth sharing. The liability facts are unusual, while the injuries were bad they were not catastrophic, given what could have happened – Death!
Here’s what happened to our client, “Spiderman”.
Walter Haynes and I represented a professional window washer that showed up to work one day to wash the exterior windows of an eight story San Francisco hotel. Our client, Jim, was a former U.S. Marine, Olympic caliber boxer, and former practice player for the the San Francisco 49ers.
On a summer day in 2011, Jim entered the hotel and filled his water bucket in the basement. Having cleaned the windows at the hotel on 5 previous occasions, he was familiar with the facility. Jim took the elevator by himself to the 7th floor to complete “a drop”; meaning he would go outside of the building and wash the exterior windows.
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Arriving on the 7th floor and specifically room 724, he accessed the floor with his rope, safety equipment, harness, Bosun’s chair (or boatswain’s chair), his bucket and cleaning equipment. As he had done many times in the past on the 7th floor of the hotel, Jim doubled over his 300 feet of rope. At the rope’s mid-point he tied two figure-8’s and used a D-ring to join the figure-8’s together and thereby securing the rope to the emergency stairwell, which was the only hardpoint to tie to on the 7th floor to accomplish the work. As was typical at this location, he ran the doubled-over rope down the hallway, under a cleaning cart and through room 724 that was open and being cleaned by hotel staff.
Once he confirmed to his satisfaction that everything was in order, he then sat in the Bosun’s chair and began his descent. Jim, now outside the window with tension on the chair and the ropes, began cleaning. One of the unique features of this kind of work and the work that has to be done to clean adjacent windows of the hotel, is that he frequently uses his feet, knees hands and even an elbow to hang onto the side of the building to clean the adjacent column of windows. As a result of lifting and climbing on the face of the building, there is no weight or tension on the chair and therefore there is no tension on the ropes leading up the building, into the window, across the room, around the corner into the hallway and through the D-ring in the hallway (where the extra rope is) and down the hallway to the attachment point in the stairwell. So, during a single drop there can be quite literally dozens of times where the weight bearing line either has or does not have tension in the line dependent upon what phase of cleaning and rappelling Jim is in.
Once outside the 7th floor window Jim is facing the building. The window he came out of is to his left and the window he intends to clean is to his right. He is slightly below the window sill but can hang onto it and pull himself up to it for cleaning purposes. The rope went from having tension to having slack as previously described. Jim was positioned under this window and began to reach out to clean the window when he first saw from his peripheral vision to his left that both lengths of rope coming from the window were beginning to spool out the window! When he realized what was happening, he grabbed onto the window sill and began to hang. He yelled out, “Ma’am I’m Still Out Here!” repeatedly. Now, fully hanging from the window, the rope was accelerating under its own weight spooling out the window and it became incrementally heavier and started to pull him down. Jim was being pulled off the building by the weight of his gear, the Bosun’s chair, his bucket of water and the ever heavier rope now fully dead-hanging below him. He then watched a maid close the window that he had come out of – even though the slacked rope was still hanging out of the window! Jim hung in that position for minutes contemplating his death. He was certain he was going to die. He watched the signal lights at the intersection of below go through multiple changes of green, to yellow, to red before his fingers and grip began to fail. The window of the sill he was hanging from was closed. And the window he had descended from was not accessible because the two window sills did not join. There was a gap and the distance was too great. Rather, there was simply a vertical brick façade between the two windows that was un-scalable.
Despite his obvious misfortune, unbeknownst to Jim, he had a couple of things going for him. He had time to think and control his feet-first-posture before his fingers failed. He did not realize it but he would ultimately fall from the bottom of the 7th floor, or perhaps more accurately (given his hanging position) the top of the 6th floor, to a narrow 3rd floor balcony rather than falling on the concrete railing or all the way to the concrete sidewalk below. Jim’s grip eventually failed and he fell feet first. To state it simply, his life was saved by a couple of things. He landed upright and feet first onto commercial grade work boots. He went down and struck his hip (Bosun’s chair first) and impacted his hip with the padding of the chair attenuating the impact to some degree. His entire body narrowly missed a concrete railing and his head only struck the side of the building after the impact with the 3rd floor deck of the balcony.
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Jim, though stunned from the fall, the impact, and amped on adrenaline, combined with the – ‘I can’t believe I’m still alive’ factor – stood up, untied himself from the ropes and stepped into the open window of the hotel to go report the incident to the hotel manager.
The hotel where this occurred was sued based on a claim of negligence by the maid for moving the ropes. Jim sustained compression injuries to his low back as a result of the fall. The hotel management took the position in litigation that the event never occurred and claimed that they had no record of Jim ever reporting the fall. The case settled at a mediation before trial for $200,000.