Jury Awards $17.8M to Widow of Builder Who Fell to Death

Steven Pickens of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker, Lawrenceville (Photo: John Disney/ALM)
Steven Pickens of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker, Lawrenceville (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Steven Pickens of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker, Lawrenceville (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

A Gwinnett County jury awarded $17.8 million to the widow of a man who plummeted three stories to his death after trying to close an improperly installed dormer window, Lawrenceville attorney Steven Pickens said Friday.

After more than three days of testimony, a 12-person jury took Thursday afternoon and part of Friday morning to reach the verdict in the wrongful death case against Lawrenceville business Classic Millwork Designs, said Pickens of Mahaffey Pickens Tucker in Lawrenceville. Pickens and two colleagues, attorneys Gerald Davidson and Catherine Schutz, represented Trish Blackwell and the estate of her late husband, Gwinnett County homebuilder Wade Blackwell, Pickens said. Born in 1962, Blackwell died in May 2015, Pickens said.

Pickens said the jury award surpassed his original offer to settle the case for $1 million—the maximum covered by Classic Millwork’s insurance policy. But the company declined the early offer he said. Classic Millwork offered to settle the case for $300,000 six days before trial, but Pickens said he turned it down.

The company raised the offer to $1 million on Nov. 25, but Pickens said Blackwell’s family and the administrator of his estate decided to go to trial. While investigating Blackwell’s death and why the window fell out of its frame, Pickens said it became clear the new window installation was done by installers who never read the instructions for the window kits and that they improperly installed the window in violation of industry standards and building codes.

The jury awarded $12,872,249 as the full value of Blackwell’s life and added $5 million for pain and suffering associated with the shock and terror Blackwell would have experienced as he plummeted to the brick steps below, Pickens said. The jury also awarded nearly $14,000 for funeral expenses, he said.

Pickens said he intends to seek legal fees allowable under state law because the verdict was more than 125 percent of the settlement offer.

Pickens said that, at trial, Classic Millwork's counsel Jeffrey Raasch of Atlanta’s Vernis & Bowling decided to present no experts and no witnesses to counter testimony by Pickens’ witnesses. “It kind of backfired,” Pickens said. “By not producing any witnesses to refute our claims, it’s almost admitting their window installation was defective.”

Neither Raasch nor a spokesman for Classic Millwork could be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Pickens said that Blackwell—a beloved member of the Brookwood High School softball community who had coached his daughters—was on his way to watch his daughter’s college team play softball when he stopped to provide a quote to the building’s owner to replace trim on the Williamsburg-style structure.

But after examining the trim, Blackwell couldn’t shut and lock the window because the top sash slid down, and he was unable to secure it. Pickens said that, in an effort to wrestle the window closed, Blackwell stepped onto a two-by-four attached to the rafter in order to facilitate opening and closing the windows. As he balanced against the window, the entire window fell out of the frame, carrying Blackwell with it. Pickens said he died at the scene.