Widow refiles suit against Jerseyville County Rural Water Company

By Steve Gonzalez | Dec 5, 2007

The widow of a Brussels man who died after falling while working inside an empty water tower re-filed a wrongful death suit in Madison County Circuit Court against Jerseyville County Rural Water Company even though a judge transferred the suit six weeks ago.

Madison County Circuit Judge Andy Matoesian transferred the case filed by Janet Schleeper of Brussels on Sept. 21 after hearing arguments from the defendants.

Schleeper claims her late husband Leo Schleeper died while lawfully cleaning, inspecting and disinfecting the Southland Tower, a 200,000 gallon elevated water tower on Oct. 24, 2006, pursuant to a contract with the water company and Leo's employer Heneghan and Associates.

According to the complaint filed Nov. 28 by Swansea attorney Tom Keefe, Jerseyville County Rural Water owned and held exclusive control of Southland Tower.

Schleeper claims Leo was climbing a 35-foot ladder to the top of the tank which was the only way to exit the inside of the tank when he fell 28 feet and landed on the bottom steel bowl. The Southland water tower is five miles south of Jerseyville.

She claims the water company negligently and carelessly failed to provide Leo with a safe place to work by failing to equip the inside of the tower with a fixed ladder to safely access and egress from inside the bowl and failed to protect him from a dangerous condition when it knew, or should have known the dangerous condition involved an unreasonable risk of harm.

Schleeper also claims co-defendant Caldwell Tanks of Louisville, Ky. negligently manufactured and installed the tower by failing to equip it with an inside fixed ladder when the tower was built in 1993.

According to the complaint, Leo's next of kin have been permanently deprived of his love, companionship, society, support and guidance. They claim they have incurred hospital and burial expenses in a substantial amount.

Shortly after the original case was filed in June, Caldwell filed a motion to transfer the case to Jersey County arguing Schleeper's complaint does not contain any allegations that satisfy the venue requirements to keep the case in Madison County.

Represented by Hiram Ely of Louisville and Stephen Beimdiek of St. Louis, Caldwell argued state statutes require civil actions be brought in the county of residence of any defendant or in the county where the alleged wrong occurred.

Caldwell argued that the company is based in Kentucky and that it does not have an office or own any property in Madison County. He also argued that the co-defendant is headquartered in Jersey County.

He also argued that venue was improper in Madison County because all of the witnesses and responding emergency personnel reside in Jersey County and all reside within two miles of the courthouse in Jerseyville.

He stated that if Matoesian found venue was proper, the case should then be transferred under the doctrine of forum non conveniens because the private and public interest factors weight heavily in favor of transferring the case to Jersey County.

Caldwell also argued that it would be unfair to burden a Madison County judge and jury when the residents of Jerseyville have a significant interest in the case because the parties reside in Jersey County.

Caldwell stated that Schleeper's choice of Madison County as a forum should be given little or no deference because her husband died in Jersey County, not Madison County.

Schleeper is seeking damages in excess of $150,000.

In February, a Jersey County coroner's jury returned a verdict of "undetermined" as to how Leo Schleeper, 55, died.

Autopsy results showed head and neck blunt force trauma was the cause of his death. No drugs or alcohol were found in his system.

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