Why would an employer have laborers work on a cliff without any fall protection safety? Two years ago, Mr. Perez was tightening barbed wire to a fence post when he fell backwards off a cliff in Eastern Washington. His horrified co-worker watched him land head first, then bounce straight back before “continuing to fall like “a fan” head over heels down a canyon wall. Mr. Perez, father of young children, became an instant quadriplegic.
SKW was contacted by attorney Tim Gresback of Moscow Idaho. Mr. Gresback was the president of the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association and had worked with Karen Koehler before. For the next year and a half we tried to figure out why the companies doing the work created such a dangerous situation.
Under Washington law, there is a principle known as “Stute”. Stute requires that a general contractor maintain a safe work site. Here, the general contractor had no idea how to work on a cliff so it hired a subcontractor. But it took no steps to see if the subcontractor was keeping employees safe. The State of Washington did an investigation that ruled against the general contractor and issued a small fine. But what about Mr. Perez.
Mr. Perez had the right to sue the general contractor. Even though this was a work injury, Mr. Perez’s employer was the subcontractor. Because there is worker’s compensation in Washington, an injured worker cannot sue their employer. But they can sue if someone other than their employer caused their injury. The state of Washington encourages lawsuits against others who injure workers. When lawsuits are successful, the state (us the tax payers) can be paid back the medical expense and lost wage payments of the worker. In a case like Mr. Perez, those payments are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.
SKW through Karen Koehler, Paul Stritmatter and Kevin Coluccio brought a lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Perez and his three dependent children in Eastern District Federal Court, Spokane. For the next year and a half we battled with the general contractor. We even went with all five of our experts to the cliff, though as you can see from the picture, we had proper safety gear. Exactly two years after Mr. Perez’s tragic injury, the case settled for $7 Million which was the policy limits available.
Both the general and subcontractor are still in business and working together. But there is now a difference. Now, their workers attend regular safety meetings, minutes are kept, fall protection gear is provided, and there is a fall protection system in place
Paul Stritmatter and Keith Kessler met on the streets of Moscow. Russia, that is. In October 1979.
You will recall that 1980 the Olympics were scheduled to take place in Moscow. In an apparent attempt to learn more about the expected American tourists, Russia offered an exchange of Washington State lawyers with Moscow lawyers. The plan was to learn the likes and dislikes of the American tourist. It was not a very successful venture.
The treatment of the American tourists was deplorable. The examples were many. The hotel rooms were bugged. (Yes, we found the listening devices in our rooms.) The food was unpalatable. ( Paul lost 14 pounds on the trip.) One evening it was announced that we would be given an “American breakfast” the next morning. They served hotdogs. Keith was (and is) a vegetarian. His food choices were even more limited. At times all he and Lynn were served was a plate of radishes. The propaganda was limitless. (One day they told us the US Attorney General had resigned. Many of us were shocked. Turned out it was not true. Another time they told us a horrible snowstorm had hit the State of Oregon, and many people had died. Turned out it was not true.) The airplanes were beyond belief. (We had airport delays of 14, 16 and 20 hours on three different in-country trips.) When we landed in Kiev, the door to the plane was frozen shut and it took them several hours to get it open. In the mean time we sat in the plane without any air-conditioning or fresh air. The temperature became more than uncomfortably warm.
There were 48 lawyers and spouses on the trip. The conditions finally became so bad, that all 48 of us voted to leave the country and either fly to western Europe or back to the USA. Like nearly all requests of our hosts during the trip, our request was denied.
So it was with that background that Paul and Keith first met. They enjoyed one another even while they were not enjoying the trip itself. They bonded. It was hoped that they would remain on contact with one another in the future.
A “reunion” of all 48 people was held the following February to reminisce and share photos. During that party, Keith announced that he was looking to change jobs. He was offered jobs at three Seattle firms on the spot. Paul then got into the act. He said that if Keith really wanted to have an active trial practice, he would move to Grays Harbor. While the statements by Paul we made in jest, the following Tuesday, Keith applied for a job with Stritmatter and Stritmatter. Not wanting to lose such a valuable lawyer to the firm and to the community, Keith was offered a job that Friday.
And Keith was not alone. He brought Lynn with him. Shortly after that they were married. Keith has not only gone on to have a sterling career as a lawyer out of Hoquiam, Lynn went on the be elected to the Legislature from the area, and served as the majority leader in the House for 8 years before her retirement in 2010.
And the 1980 Olympics. Oh yeah, they were boycotted by the USA in protest of the Russian involvement in Afghanistan. (And because of all our protests on how they treated the American tourist.)