A jury on Friday awarded $19 million in damages to a paralyzed Vandergrift man following an accident in a friend’s swimming pool, in what would be Westmoreland County’s largest ever verdict.
Jurors have found Washington Township owners Robert and Laura O’Black negligent and responsible for the injuries sustained by Michael Fraser, now 29, who broke his neck after diving on a raft in the family pool.
Fraser’s lawyers said the O’Blacks wrongly allowed a five-foot rubber raft in the pool.
“It’s going to give Mike peace of mind and say it’s not all his fault,” Fraser’s attorney Mike Calder said.
The jury deliberated over two hours before returning a verdict finding the O’Blacks 70% responsible for Fraser’s injuries.
He awarded her $9 million in damages to pay for past and future medical expenses, $3 million for pain and suffering, $3 million for loss of life’s pleasures, an additional $3 million for embarrassment and $1 million for disfigurement.
Fraser, her parents and her brother testified at length during the trial about her struggles, including round-the-clock care and assistance in almost every aspect of her life. Since the injury, Fraser testified that he had undergone multiple surgeries, was confined to a wheelchair, had limited use of his arms and was unable to perform most daily tasks. without help.
He has since graduated from Robert Morris University and worked as an actuary.
During the week-long trial, Fraser and his legal team claimed that without the raft, the life-altering injury does not occur.
Fraser, according to accounts, was 21 when he attended a holiday party on July 6, 2013 at his friend’s home. He jumped off a diving board and onto the raft. Witnesses said Fraser was thrown out of the raft and into the water, where he hit his head in an area between the deep and shallow ends of the pool.
Calder argued during the trial that the O’Blacks covered up a warning that appeared on the raft that advised against using it for diving. He also asked jurors to find the O’Blacks negligent because the raft was not suitable for use in swimming pools. Robert O’Black testified that he bought the raft to pull it behind a boat. Instead, it was commonly used in the family pool, he told jurors.
The raft was never produced in evidence. It was dropped years ago, according to lawyers for Fraser and the O’Blacks.
Attorney Robert Loch, who represented the O’Black family, declined to comment after the verdict was announced.
He argued during the trial that Fraser was solely responsible for his injuries.
“Remember why this accident happened, and what Mr. Fraser did and the choices he made,” Loch told jurors.
Rare Grand Jury Prizes
Grand Jury Prizes have been rare in Westmoreland County.
Civil verdict reports released by the Westmoreland Bar Association dating back to 2000 included a handful of cases where plaintiffs were awarded $1 million or more in damages.
A jury following a 2003 trial awarded $6 million in damages to a Jefferson County logger injured on the job, in what local attorneys are calling the largest verdict handed down locally before Friday.