Posted: Monday, December 30, 2013 12:15 am
By Mark Huffman, Jackson Hole Daily
Jurors awarded millions last week in a carbon monoxide poisoning suit handled by the Spence Law Firm of Jackson.
Amber Nicole Lompe, 23, won $2.7 million in compensatory damages and another $25.5 million in punitive damages in the suit she filed against her former landlord in Casper.
Attorney Tyson Logan said the big award was fair considering the injuries Lompe suffered in 2011. He said the case is also a warning to people around Wyoming, many of whom are potential victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The size of the punitive damages in particular was appropriate, Logan said, because the operators of the apartment building knew of the furnace problems but “they decided to gamble” rather than pay for repairs.
“A lot of people have no idea of the danger,” Logan said. “They think they can trust when they move into an apartment that it’s safe.”
Similar suits have been filed in Teton County but were settled before trial.
The landlord, Sunridge Partners and the Salt Lake City firm Apartment Management Consultants, “had problems for years but didn’t want to spend money” to fix them, Logan said.
Logan worked with attorney Bryan Ulmer, who agreed that the companies “knowingly risked their tenants’ lives, refusing to provide safe, working furnaces in the apartments.”
During the three-week trial, Logan and Ulmer presented evidence that Sunridge failed for years to maintain 96 apartment furnaces. The furnaces were installed in the 1970s.
The landlord was warned by the gas company and, a year before Lompe’s poisoning, the lawyers said, Sunridge’s own apartment manager was poisoned by carbon monoxide.
Ironically, that same man saved Lompe, Logan said. The manager was walking through the building when he smelled exhaust gases also being emitted by the furnace in her apartment. He alerted everyone in the building, including Lompe, who otherwise would almost certainly have died, Logan said.
Evidence established that most units, including Lompe’s, didn’t have working carbon monoxide detectors. The jury also heard Logan and Ulmer accuse Sunridge of altering or destroying evidence, including the furnace in Lompe’s apartment.
Lompe, 20 at the time, is a resident of Kaycee, a town of fewer than 300 people north of Casper.
She was a physical therapy student at Casper College, but is no longer attending, though she hopes to resume at some point, Logan said.
Doctors testified that Lompe suffered permanent brain injury that affects her memory and concentration, that she has chronic headaches and sleep problems, and will require medication and other treatment for the rest of her life.
Lawyers for Sunridge and the apartment management company contested each point of the claims, Logan said, and even argued that she was faking or exaggerating her injuries.
“Her brain injuries really affect her abilities,” Logan said, “and definitely limit the things she can do.”
The Spence Law Firm was founded by Gerry Spence, a long-time advocate for clients he regards as “little people” who think they have no hope in legal fights with the rich and powerful.
In 1974 he represented the family of Karen Silkwood, the nuclear plant whistle-blower killed in a mysterious traffic crash. He defended Randy Weaver against charges in the 1992 standoff with the FBI at Ruby Ridge in Idaho.