Outraged Florida Jury Awards $1.19 Million to Injured Worker

A three-person Florida manufacturing firm is facing a big fine after an "angry" jury reached its verdict on an injured worker's lawsuit.

A jury in Florida's Lee County Circuit Court last week awarded $1.19 million to Mary Henley, a former employee of Immokalee, Fla.-based Cyto Meridian Inc. Henley sued the company, which makes electrical connectors, after two of her fingers were crushed by a 50-ton power press on Sept. 17, 2003.

Henley's attorney, Steven Koeppel of Fort Myers, asked the court for $243,000 in lost wages and $50,000 for her physical and emotional trauma. The jury's award: $800,000 for pain and suffering, $375,000 for future lost wages, $900 for medical expenses and $17,264 for past lost wages.

The award caught even Koeppel a bit by surprise.

"I've been doing this 18 years … and this was unusual," Koeppel said, adding that he provided his services free of charge to Henley.

CEO, attorney didn't show up for trial

Koeppel said the jury likely was infuriated by Cyto Meridian's "disregard for the safety of its employees," which only was exacerbated by the fact that the company's CEO and attorney failed to show up at the trial.

A spokeswoman for Cyto Meridian referred an inquiry about the CEO's absence to Cyto Meridian's attorney, Eric Vasquez of Naples. A phone call placed to Vasquez Monday morning has not been returned.

Koeppel said Cyto Meridian not only was negligent in its workplace safety measures but also in providing workers' compensation insurance. A court document shows Cyto Meridian's workers' compensation insurance policy was dropped on July 8, 2003 -- 2 months before Henley's accident.

Company spokesperson Minette Langston said the coverage was discontinued because a layoff dropped the company's employment ranks from three to two full-time workers, making the company ineligible for coverage. She said Cyto Meridian currently has three workers.

OSHA, according to court documents, inspected Cyto Meridian about a month after Henley's accident and found the company's power presses lacked proper guarding, among other safety violations. "Owner has been notified several times of the defect," wrote one inspector. "A guard was purchased approximately 4 years ago for the 50-ton unit but never installed. Employee suffered crushed fingers (index and third), 20 stitches and possible loss of feeling."

As a result of the inspections, OSHA cited Cyto Meridian for a number of violations, amounting to $20,000 in penalties after an informal settlement with the agency. Keven Yarbrough, assistant area director for OSHA's Tampa office, said Cyto Meridian is on a payment plan for the fines.

Company not sure where $1.19 million will come from

As for the $1.19 million the jury is asking Cyto Meridian to pay Henley, Langston admitted the company isn't sure how it will cough up the money.

"We're trying to figure out where we go from here," Langston said, adding that the company hasn't decided yet if it will appeal the jury's verdict.

Langston said "95 percent" of the statements in a local newspaper regarding the trial were inaccurate. She said one statement attributed to Koeppel -- that Henley was fired after she filed complaints with OSHA -- was false. "I actually have a letter of resignation from her," Langston said.

"We did make settlement offers to Miss Henley, which she refused," Langston said. "We did pay her salary, and up until the time of her lawsuit we were paying all her doctors' and therapy bills. Yes she was hurt on the job, and yes we did feel terrible about it, and we did try to do the right thing."

That didn't matter to jurors, who Koeppel said were downright "angry."

"We showed a letter that said [Cyto Meridian] could've renewed their coverage the same day of the accident," Koeppel said. "There were some things the company did that were pretty ugly."

Henley, who now works at Home Depot because she's been unable to find work similar to what she did at Cyto Meridian, cried "happy tears" when she heard the jury's verdict, Koeppel said.

"She hugged me, and as the jury came out she hugged each and every one of them."

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