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Burn victim gets $1.9M verdict in Wythe

A Wythe County burn victim has won a record $1.9 million verdict against a machine shop with an improperly installed water heater.

The pilot light in the water heater ignited paint and lacquer vapors in the shop.

The award is the largest in the history of the county, easily eclipsing the old record of $150,000.

The case, tried in Wythe Circuit Court, is Maxwell v. Turner. The Trial Report appears on page 5. The case was won by Wytheville lawyer Thomas G. Hodges and Bristol attorney C. Adrian White.

The water heater was installed in the middle of the shop, in violation of building code regulations, Hodges said. Paint, lacquer and thinner fumes are heavier than air and settle at the floor. The vapors are highly flammable.

Under the regulations, a water heater should be installed at an elevation or in a completely different room from vapors.

When the pilot light ignited the accumulated vapors, the resulting fire burned the plaintiff over 80 percent of his body. He was badly scarred, with his hands suffering the worst damage, Hodges said.

He is able to work as a tool attendant, and while he has recovered some mobility in his hands, he still experiences some trouble.

For three years, the defendant denied liability. Then on the Friday before the Monday trial date, the defendant admitted negligence and proximate cause. But he argued that the plaintiff was contributorily negligent, Hodges said.

Since the defendant had admitted negligence and was trying to prove contributory negligence, he moved that he be allowed to proceed first, as it were, to put on his case. But his motion was denied by Judge Willis A. Woods.

The defendant’s evidence was struck and Woods submitted the issue of damages only to the jury, which returned a verdict of $1.9 million.

The plaintiff had sought $3 million.

Hodges said that at one point, the defendant’s lawyers had offered a high-low arrangement, with limits of $300,000 and $1.35 million. But the offer was rejected.

Hodges said that Woods told him that the size of the verdict was a record for the county; it bested a $150,000 award won by Woods himself some years ago.

Hodges said he expects the defendant to appeal.

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