Madison - St. Clair Record

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Non-profits, volunteers deny liability in suit alleging teen was electrocuted from defective outlet

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Feb 23, 2018

General court 05

Several non-profit organizations and volunteers who did electrical work at a Troy home deny liability in a suit alleging a 19-year-old was electrocuted when he attempted to plug in a vacuum pump, causing him to suffer fatal injuries.

Doug Elliott and Dawn Elliott, as independent co-administrators of the estate of Caleb Elliott, filed the complaint on Nov. 30 against Viola Sexton, Linda Johnson, Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois, Liberty Worship Center, The Boeing Company, Employees Community Fund of Boeing St. Louis, Derek Bernett and J/B Industries Inc.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege home electrical and outlet maintenance was performed in 2014 at Sexton and Johnson’s Troy home by the defendant non-profit groups.

Then on Aug. 11, 2017, Caleb Elliott, 19, went to the home as an employee of Viviano Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. His duties required him to use and plug a J/B Industries Inc. vacuum pump DV-85-N into an outlet. After Caleb Elliott plugged the vacuum pump into the outlet and began operating the pump, he was electrocuted. He died as a result of his injuries the same day.

The plaintiffs allege the defendants failed to properly wire, connect or install the electrical outlets; failed to inspect the electrical outlets; failed to inform and warn the decedent that the outlets were improperly wired or installed; failed to maintain the property in a manner that is in compliance with local and state ordinances; failed to maintain the outlets; failed to install a ground fault circuit interrupter; allowed the outlets to be installed with a false ground or reverse polarity; and failed to protect the entire branch circuit with a ground fault circuit interrupter.

J/B Industries filed a motion to strike and motion to dismiss on Jan. 9 through attorney Russell Watters and Bradley Hansmann of Brown & James PC in St. Louis.

The defendant argues that the plaintiff’s complaint fails to allege any specific facts of how the vacuum pump was defective, only making “vague allegations and generalizations to arrive at its unsupported conclusions.”

J/B also argues that the complaint fails to allege how the vacuum pump was the cause of the decedent’s death.

“JB cannot defend a lawsuit in which the Plaintiffs cannot even facially establish the defect or causation,” the motion states.

Johnson and Sexton filed separate answers to the complaint on Jan. 9 through attorney Michael Murphy of Freeark, Harvey & Mendillo PC in Belleville.

In their affirmative defenses, Johnson and Sexton both allege the decedent’s injuries were the result of independent, intervening causes over which they had no control and were not reasonably foreseeable.

Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois filed an answer to the complaint on Jan. 11 through attorneys Stephen Strum and Sara Obermark of Sandberg Phoenix & von Gontard PC in St. Louis.

In its affirmative defense, the defendant argues that any alleged injuries “were not directly or proximately caused by any act or omission of this Defendant, but were the result of some conduct other than Defendant’s conduct.”

Bernett filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on Jan. 23through attorneys James Craney and Joshua Edelson of Craney Law Group in Edwardsville, citing the Volunteer Protection Act. The defendant argues that he is immune from liability as an uncompensated volunteer on behalf of Liberty Worship Center and/or Rebuilding Together Southwest Illinois, which are both non-profit organizations. 

“The VPA provides that no volunteer will be liable for harm caused by an act or omission when acting on behalf of the nonprofit entity, except when the volunteer fails to meet certain conditions of the act,” the motion states. “[T]hese exceptions are inapplicable in this case.”

“No matter which tax-exempt organization Bernett volunteered on behalf of, he is immune from liability since the Complaint neither alleges that he was compensated for his services and/or acted outside the scope of his responsibilities,” it continues. 

Liberty Worship Center, also represented by Craney and Edelson, answered the complaint on Jan. 23. 

In its affirmative defenses, the defendant argues that the plaintiff’s own acts or omissions contributed to the incident. It also argues that the alleged damages were caused by parties other than Liberty.

Further, Liberty argues that the conditions complained of in the complaint “are not and were not dangerous conditions and did not create a substantial risk of injury when it was used with due care in a manner in which it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used.”

The defendant adds that if a risk was present, employees or volunteers created the condition of property that “merely constitutes a minor, trivial, or insignificant risk which did not create a dangerous condition of property.”

The Boeing Company answered the complaint on Feb. 6 through attorney Megan Slowikowski of Sinars Rollins LLC in Chicago.

In its affirmative defenses, the defendant argues that the alleged injuries were caused by the negligence of various co-defendants and non-parties.

Boeing also argues that Caleb Elliott’s injuries were caused by his failure to exercise due care and caution for his own safety by altering products that could not be reasonably anticipated, misusing products, ignoring warnings and instructions and failing to exercise safe work practices.

The defendant also argues that Caleb Elliot knew of the manner in which the products were to be used, but misused the products in a manner which could not be reasonably anticipated.

The plaintiffs denied each and every allegation raised in the defendants’ separate affirmative defenses.

They are represented by Robert Marcus of Kujawski Marcus LLC in O’Fallon and Justin Haber of Kalcheim Haber LLC in Chicago.

Madison County Circuit Court case number 17-L-1625

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Organizations in this Story

Kalcheim Haber, LLPMadison County Circuit CourtKujawski Marcus LLC