A Baltimore jury on Wednesday awarded more than $34 million to 20 restaurant workers and three others who say they were injured by a 2008 carbon monoxide leak that temporarily shuttered a Ruth's Chris Steak House at the Pier 5 Hotel.
"We think justice was done in the case," said attorney William H. Murphy Jr., who held a press conference on the courthouse steps to announce the verdict.
He characterized the leak as "the worst carbon monoxide poisoning incident in the history of Baltimore," while his colleague Richard Falcon described the hotel's owner and operator as being like "BP down in the gulf" because they allegedly disabled a safety device that could have prevented the leak.
The Georgia-based attorneys for hotel owner, TBOP Pier 5 LLC, and operator, MJ Harbor Hotel LLC, did not return messages seeking comment. They're expected to appeal the verdict, which was handed down after a day of deliberation and a 13-week civil trial in Baltimore Circuit Court.
Ruth's Chris was not a party in the lawsuit, and is not responsible, Murphy said.
The leak was discovered Feb. 2, 2008, after firefighters responded to a complaint that restaurant employees were falling ill. About 150 people were evacuated from the restaurant that night, and 17 of them were sent to the hospital for treatment after complaining of dizziness and nausea, according to fire officials.
The Ruth's Chris workers, who ranged from cooks to busboys, filed their first court complaint against the hotel's owner and its operator roughly three weeks later. An amended version, filed last year, claims that the defendants' negligence and poor equipment maintenance created a dangerous situation that exposed the plaintiffs to "deadly levels of carbon monoxide."
Lawyer Mary Koch, who also works in Murphy's firm, described the plaintiffs as "young people in their 20s" who now have memory, retention and depression issues because of the defendants' negligence. They all experienced some level of brain damage, Murphy said.
Three of the employees and their wives also claimed that the leak affected their romantic relationships through the "loss of, among other things, each other's society, consortium, and conjugal affection, resulting in great mental pain and anguish."
The hotels' ventilation and safety device systems have since been repaired, Falcon said, at a cost of $5,800.
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