A D.C. Superior Court jury has awarded a Washington woman and her husband $175,000 in damages resulting from injuries she suffered when a chair she was sitting on collapsed at a Garfinckel's department store restaurant in downtown Washington.
Elaine B. Hancock injured her lower back in January 1977 when she sat down for lunch in the Greenbrier Restaurant on the fifth floor of Garfinckel's department store at 14th and F streets NW, according to one of her lawyers, Leonard Koenick. The seat of a wrought-iron, patio-type chair, gave way, causing her to fall through the chair's frame. Several screws holding the chair's seat to its frame apparently snapped loose when Mrs. Hancock sat down.
The jury granted the settlement against Garfinckel's and Elbartus G. Van Linden, who operates the restaurant under a lease from the department store, after her lawyers argued that injuries from the accident had forced Mrs. Hancock to retire from her job as an equal employment opportunity specialist at the Department of Labor. She continues to suffer painful back problems, making it difficult for her to sit for an extended period of time, lawyers involved in the case said.
The jury awarded $145,000 in damages to Mrs. Hancock and $30,000 to her husband, Dr. Victor L. Hancock, a Washington dentist, as compensation for her inability to perform normal wifely duties as a result of the mishap. The Hancock's lawyers will receive nearly $60,000 of the damage award, the standard legal fee in personal injury cases, Koenick said. The jury dismissed a complaint of faulty product design against a third defendant named in the suit, Lee L. Woodard & Sons, the manufacturers of the chair.
William J. Donnelly Jr., Van Linden's attorney, said, "The jury verdict was totally out of line. . . .We never disputed that the chair collapsed or that she [Mrs. Hancock] hurt her back -- the question was just how badly."
He said that the defendants initially offered to pay the Hancocks $25,000 in an out-of-court settlement, but the couple rejected the offer. Donnelly said he may attempt to get the award, which he called "quite generous," reduced.
Van Linden, a native of Amsterdam, satirically called the verdict "typical of American justice -- I think it's great." He said the chairs, already at the restaurant when he started to run it in 1966, were "beautiful" and "expensive" and that there were no accidents involving them other than the one that injured Mrs. Hancock. The chairs, he said, were replaced along with tables and carpets in 1978 when Garfinckel's revamped its decor.
Mrs. Hancock could not be reached for comment and her husband declined to discuss the case.