A lawsuit brought by a former New Archangel Dancer against the City of Sitka was turned over to the jury following closing arguments on Friday afternoon (10-4-19). After hearing two weeks of testimony, the jury reached a verdict on Monday (10-7-19): the city of Sitka was not negligent, and therefore not responsible for $3.7 million in damages for an injury Sulzbach sustained while rehearsing for the 2016 Alaska Day Celebration.
Sandy Sulzbach and her husband Rob, sought around $3.7 million in damages from the City of Sitka after Sulzbach was injured on city property in 2016. Sulzbach alleged that a ceiling decoration at Harrigan Centennial Hall fell, hitting her on the head during a dance rehearsal.
Over two weeks, jurors heard all of the evidence in the case, and on Friday (10/4/19), attorneys representing the plaintiffs and the defendant made closing arguments.
The Alaska Day Festival Committee was leasing part of Centennial Hall for the 2016 Celebration. Sulzbach was a member of the New Archangel Dancers group that was set to perform, and they were using the space to rehearse while it was being decorated on October 15, 2016.
Attorney Mark Choate argued on behalf of the Sulzbach family that the City of Sitka had behaved negligently by not exercising “reasonable care,” in supervising an Alaska Day Volunteer, John Ferrick, who hung the decoration that fell — a chandelier made of fabric and multiple metal rings that weighed around six pounds.
“The professionals control access to the building? Sandy Sulzbach doesn’t. John Ferrick doesn’t. The Alaska Day Committee doesn’t. It’s the paid professional staff,” he said. “The people trained and paid to make sure this facility is safe to the public.”
During his closing arguments Choate spoke of Sulzbach’s injuries: Spinal injuries and difficulty walking, regular headaches, an eye that now points inward, as well as the effect it had on her ability to care for her children and her home. And her ability to dance:
“She was a wonderful spinner. I’m not a dancer- but all of us have something we love,” Choate said. “We have something that’s meaningful to us, it could be hunting, it could be going out in the boat to fish. There are things that are important to us, if they’re taken away they have value. For Sandy, she loves to dance.”
All-in-all, he argued for compensation spread over the next 40 years of Sulzbach’s life to the tune of around $3.7 million.
Timothy Bowman argued on behalf of the city. He said that the responsibility rested on Ferrick, the volunteer who installed the light fixture, who he said was a reliable volunteer.
“Is it reasonable to have to follow around everybody who comes into the building to decorate?” Bowman asked. “Is that reasonable, particularly when the person who is coming in to decorate is a person who has been doing it for years and years and years without ever having any problem? Is it reasonable?”
Bowman said the amount the Sulzbach’s were requesting was extreme, and he questioned the nature of her injury and how dramatically it impacted her life. While she couldn’t drive at night or in downtown Houston — where the Sulzbachs now live — Bowman said she can still drive.
“If somebody is brain injured and they’re impaired from driving, I would argue that she would not be driving at all. Not only is she driving, she’s driving with her kids,” he said. “If she really thought she was a hazard behind the wheel, there’s no way that Mrs. Sulzbach would drive around with her kids.”
And as for dancing:
“I don’t have any doubt that she loved the New Archangel Dancers. I don’t have any doubt that she was dedicated,” said Bowman. “But the whole yarn that this has interrupted some lifelong love of dance is just not born out by the facts. Mrs. Sulzbach didn’t train at the Juilliard. She is not a part of the Moscow Ballet.”
After closing arguments, the jury went into deliberations, stopping at 4:30 on Friday afternoon. They deliberated until 11:30 on Monday morning when they returned with a verdict — both the city of Sitka and John Ferrick were not found negligent and no damages were awarded to the Sulzbach family.