Idaho Justices Uphold $1.4 Million Jury Award

May 31, 2011

The Idaho Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a former state representative who contested a jury’s decision that he must pay about $1.4 million to a couple after one of them was injured on a broken stairway.

The justices in a unanimous decision on Wednesday ruled that Milt Erhart must pay James and Gale Phillips for damages caused when James Phillips fell in a Meridian office building owned by Erhart.

The Phillips contended that the faulty stairway was to blame for James Phillips’ fall and resulting head injury, leaving him with major behavioral changes.

A 4th District Court jury in 2009 agreed. Erhart was ordered to pay James Phillips $253,014 in economic damages and $562,000 in non-economic damages. The jury also awarded Gale Phillips $556,200 for loss of aid, care, comfort, society companionship, services, protection and conjugal affection of an injured spouse.

The Phillips said that James Phillips suffered personality changes, depression, memory loss, vision problems, sleeping problems and is no longer the funny and outgoing person he was. The couple also said that James Phillips has become afraid of the water, preventing him from taking part in a favorite activity of diving for abalone.

Erhart, a Republican, represented Boise in the Idaho House from 1995-1996. He ran unsuccessfully for governor against Dirk Kempthorne in 2002.

Erhart argued that the evidence didn’t support the claim that wrongful misconduct was the cause of the fall. He also said there was insufficient evidence that his conduct was willful and wonton. In addition, he said 4th District Court Judge Richard Greenwood abused his discretion in not granting a new trial on the damages awarded to Gale Phillips.

The justices rejected those arguments. Chief Justice Dan Eismann wrote that the jury could have reasonably concluded Erhart improperly installed stair treads to save time, never checked the installation in over two years, failed to consult an expert, didn’t follow up on warnings by other tenants, and knew that a 5-foot fall to a concrete slab could cause serious injury.

The justices also said that the jury award to Gale Phillips “does not indicate it was given under the influence of passion or prejudice.”

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