In a landmark legal settlement, Seattle-based climbing gym Vertical World and Colorado-based equipment manufacturer C3 Manufacturing have agreed to pay a combined $6 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from a preventable climbing accident that resulted in severe injuries to a climber. The settlement comes as a result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Seattle climber who suffered life-altering injuries after a 30-foot fall from a climbing wall due to a defective auto-belay device.
The incident, which occurred on August 1, 2019, at Vertical World’s Seattle gym, was caused by a combination of factors including alleged defects with the auto-belay device, improper supervision by Vertical World staff, and inadequate training for climbers by Vertical World. Despite using the device properly, the climber fell when the auto-belay device failed to function as intended.
The lawsuit uncovered that C3 was aware of defects in the equipment. C3’s auto-belay devices, known as the “Perfect Descent,” were sold despite a history of defects with the auto-belay retraction springs. As part of the settlement, C3 Manufacturing has agreed to pay $5 million, and Vertical World will pay $1 million.
The settlement announcement was made by PCVA partner Darrell Cochran, the lead attorney representing the climber. Darrell emphasized, “Our case uncovered a history of profit-driven decisions by a manufacturer which seemed to display a disregard for the safety of their customers. Our client suffered life-altering injuries that have devastated him and his family. This settlement will help, but it can never give him back everything he lost.”
The injuries sustained by the climber included 12 pelvic fractures, a sacral fracture, a left radial fracture, fractured ribs, bladder laceration, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and lung injuries. He endured multiple surgeries and was wheelchair-bound for months with lasting impairments.
Investigations conducted by Darrell’s legal team revealed that C3’s president, Ronald Naranjo, seemingly ignored a history of defects with the auto-belay devices despite prior knowledge of their dangers. The devices had a history of unintended defects dating back to 2015, and in 2016, C3 issued “stop use” and “return for repair notices” but seemingly failed to make effective changes.
Additionally, Judge Suzanne Parisien of King County Superior Court imposed sanctions of nearly $300,000 on C3 and its attorneys for their misconduct during the legal proceedings. Just months before trial was scheduled to begin in Seattle, C3’s entire legal team withdrew from the case and was replaced with new attorneys from the Lewis Brisbois law firm. It was revealed that the prior attorneys who had withdrawn from the case withheld evidence concerning misrepresentations about the product defect history.
Andrew Ulmer, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, discussed the significance of this sanction: “In litigation, attorneys can be adversarial and come close to pushing the limits when advocating for a client. But when parties are engaged in document discovery, you have to play above the table and be an honest officer of the court. Withholding evidence is simply not tolerated in our legal community and Judge Parisien’s sanctions order sent the message that attorneys have to play by the rules.” The sanctions ruling is currently on appeal.
The settlement marks a significant step towards holding accountable those responsible for putting the safety of climbers at risk. Darrell Cochran said, “While this settlement cannot undo the harm that was done, it sends a clear message that safety and accountability must be paramount in such recreational facilities.”
Media coverage about the settlement:
Gym and Auto Belay Manufacturer to Pay $6M in Settlement for Auto Belay Accident, Outside, 9/21/23
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Josh Kerns for PCVA
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