The Alaska Supreme Court has denied an appeal from a Sitka woman who was injured after a large decoration fell on her during preparations for the city’s Alaska Day festivities in 2016.
The 23-page decision affirms the verdict of a Sitka jury, which ruled on the multi-million dollar lawsuit following a lengthy trial in 2019.
Sandy Sulzbach sought $3.7 million in damages after a decorative lantern fell on her head in Sitka’s Harrigan Centennial Hall during rehearsals for the city’s Alaska Day Festival.
Sulzbach was a member of the New Archangel Dancers, an amateur ensemble comprised of local women who have entertained visitors with Russian folk dances for over fifty years.
The lanterns weighed about five pounds and were hanging roughly eight feet from the floor. At trial, they were described as “light and collapsible” and unlikely to concentrate their weight on a single point, “substantially reducing (any) impact.” They were being hung by John Ferrick, a volunteer for the Alaska Day Festival, who frequently provided technical services in the centennial building for a variety of organizations.
Ferrick was using the building’s lift to temporarily mount the lanterns, until they could be leveled, and more securely installed.
Ferrick was absent from the room for about 15 minutes when the accident occured. Sulzbach was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a concussion and released.
Sulzbach and her husband Rob subsequently brought a lawsuit against the city, claiming its negligence caused them harm: Sulzbach for her injuries, and her husband for the loss of marital relations resulting from those injuries – for a total of $3.7 million. The city, in turn, brought a third-party complaint against Ferrick, alleging that his negligence was to blame for the accident.
Following two weeks of testimony in October, 2019, a Sitka jury found that the city was not negligent, either on its own, or vicariously for Ferrick. The court also found that Ferrick was not negligent, and determined that he was shielded from liability by the Volunteer Protection Act.
Sulzbach filed a motion for a new trial, on the grounds that the trial court had made “a fundamental evidentiary error” in questioning the manager of the centennial building at the time. She also argued that the jury’s verdict in favor of Ferrick was against the clear weight of evidence. When the trial court denied her request, she appealed, adding a new claim that the Sitka jury erred by deciding, against the clear weight of evidence that the city was not negligent.
In a 23-page decision issued on September 16, the Alaska Supreme Court found Sulzbach’s arguments unpersuasive, writing “substantial evidence supports the jury’s conclusion.” As to the “evidentiary error” during the testimony of the building manager, the Supreme Court determined that the error was quickly corrected, and that Sulzbach had adequate opportunity to examine and re-cross-examine the witness. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Sitka trial court, and waived other issues raised by Sulzbach – including attorney’s fees – as being “insufficiently briefed.”
Note 9-26-22: This article was amended to reflect that the Sitka jury also found John Ferrick not negligent.