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$650,000 Award in Store Fall

Tampa Tribune

DADE CITY — A Pasco County jury on Thursday awarded a Brandon woman $650,000 in damages in her negligence lawsuit against Bealls Department Stores Inc.Betty Morris, 62, was injured in May 2003 when she tripped over a ladder while shopping at Bealls on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Wesley Chapel.

She filed suit against the company in June 2004. The trial began Tuesday in Pasco County Court. The jury deliberated more than two hours before returning the verdict in favor of Morris. In awarding her damages, the panel placed fault for Morris’ fall entirely on the department store. The jury also awarded Morris $8,175 for medical expenses.

“There was just no evidence that it happened any way other than the way our client said it happened,” said Terry Fiset, Morris’ attorney.

Dale Parker, an attorney for Bealls, did not return a call seeking comment.

Karen Filips, a spokeswoman for Bealls, said she had little information about the case.

“We did hear about the verdict, and we were surprised by it and obviously disappointed in the outcome,” she said.

Morris went to the store on May 10, 2003, to shop for a jacket. Her left foot caught on a ladder, causing her to fall forward onto her face and hands. She bruised the left side of her face and her hands, which were already deformed by rheumatoid arthritis.

Eric Clemons, a former maintenance worker at Bealls, had set up the ladder to change lightbulbs. He left the ladder when he was called to another department. In a deposition, Clemons said he pulled clothing racks around the ladder’s base to prevent someone from tripping over it. “In my opinion, it was her fault,” Clemons said in the deposition.

Morris declined to be taken to a hospital and instead drove home and iced her hands. When the swelling subsided, Morris noticed she had limited use of her right thumb and could no longer grasp objects.

Before the accident, Morris’ right thumb and index finger were the only part of either hand that hadn’t lost functionality because of her arthritis. The accident and injury to her thumb took much of what use she had left in the hand, Fiset said. Morris’ ability to perform basic tasks such as cutting food, putting on jewelry or turning a key became more limited.

Morris said in a deposition last year that her inability to do these things threatened her independence. She also said the injury caused her embarrassment.

“It’s embarrassing to go out with other people, you know, for dinner, which we do often, to have someone else cut my meat and things,” she said.

Robert Levin, a Dunedin rheumatologist, said in a deposition that ligament damage likely was the cause of the injury to Morris’ thumb.

“This is something that is a permanent problem unless a successful surgical correction could be applied,” he said. “At that point, I’m not sure that would lead to 100 percent recovery.”

Reporter Todd Leskanic can be reached at (352) 521-3156.

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