A former Sitka resident who was denied millions in civil damages when a decoration fell on her head in Harrigan Centennial Hall, has taken her claims to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Sandy Sulzbach was a member of the New Archangel Dancers, who was injured in 2016 during a rehearsal for the group’s Alaska Day performance. A ceiling decoration at Harrigan Centennial Hall fell and hit her on the head, and Sulzbach and her husband Rob subsequently sought around $3.7 million in damages from the city. In 2019, a Sitka jury found the city was not negligent, and therefore not responsible for the claim.
Attorney Mark Choate represents the Sulzbachs. On February 10, he and the city’s attorney, Timothy Bowman, each had 25 minutes to argue their sides before the Alaska Supreme Court. As part of his appeal, Choate cited a 1989 case, Patton versus Spa Lady.
In the case, James Patton was leaning over a sink at a fitness center when he was shocked by an electrical outlet that had been installed during the center’s expansion. Generally, an employer isn’t responsible for the “torts” of its independent contractors, but there are some exceptions. In this case, it was found that the land owner was “vicariously liable” for the injury that occurred on their property.
“When you possess land, you have a duty to make sure it’s safe,” Choate said. “Between an innocent possessor of land and an innocent third party injured because of the negligence of the possessor’s independent contractor, the possessor should bear any loss because the possessor is in a better position to know what risk of injury exists, and to take steps to guard against them.”
Choate said this exception applied to the city and John Ferrick, the independent contractor in the suit who installed the decorative fixture that fell on Sulzbach– Ferrick was also not found negligent by the Sitka jury. But Ferrick wasn’t a paid independent contractor for the city – he was volunteering for the Alaska Day Committee. And that’s why attorney Timothy Bowman argued that the direction of the suit was misplaced.
“In this case, the city had no role in selecting the decoration. They had no role in, you know, directing the time that Mr. Ferrick was going to show up, or how he was going to do it. The decoration itself was not owned by the city. And he never consulted with the city regarding his method of hanging,” Bowman said. “The city didn’t know or have reason to know how he had planned to hang the decorations in the first place.”
Bowman said the only input the city had was on where to attach the decorations in the new building.
“Despite knowing that Mr. Ferrick was working for the Alaska Day Committee, the appellants declined to add them as a party in this case,” said Bowman. “Therefore to the extent that they complain that they’ve been deprived of an avenue of redress, they have nobody to blame but themselves.”
During his rebuttal, Choate maintained that the property owner, not the Alaska Day Committee, is the responsible party.
“Public Facilities, especially government owned public facilities should be safe,” Choate said. “And when you come into them as a third party, you should assume, just as I assume today and all of us assume, that nothing is going to hit us in the head.”
A decision from the Alaska Supreme Court on the Sulzbach appeal is forthcoming.