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Worker with his injured back neck

Andre Stute’s Story

Andre Stute was permanently disabled when he fell from the roof of a building on a Renton construction site in 1984. In a landmark decision about the accident, the Washington Supreme Court reaffirmed that general contractors have a duty to protect all workers on the job.

Safety harnesses and scaffolding were about as common as water in the desert when Andre Stute tip-toed around rooftops on Washington construction sites in the early 1980s.

A gutter installer for various contractors, Andre often worked with nothing between himself and the ground three stories below. Sometimes, on particularly dangerous jobs, he and his coworkers would tie extension cords around their waists as an improvised safety harness.

“It was just nuts,” Andre recalls. “We would take turns nailing, hanging only from a cord, to stop from sliding off steep roofs.”

One day in March 1984, Andre balanced atop an apartment building under construction in Renton. It had been raining, enough to make the roof more slick than usual. As he leaned forward to nail in the second to last piece of the gutter for the day, Andre’s foot slipped. He plummeted 28 feet.

“It happened so fast. The ground just came up right in my face,” Andre says in his Auburn home. “I remember the shock going all the way through my spine. Initially, I felt like I’d had the breath knocked out of me. Only it didn’t go away. My first thought was: Am I paralyzed? Can I move my toes? I couldn’t wiggle my toes. So I thought, well, can I move my feet? I could, so I thought, okay, I’m not paralyzed.”

A powerful 9-0 vote from the high court justice, which overturned a lower court ruling, concluded that a general contractor has ultimate responsibility for work-site safety.
He was still able to walk, but three crushed vertebrae and other injuries left Andre, now 37, permanently disabled. He underwent knee surgery and months of excruciating rehabilitation. To this day, he cannot lift anything heavier than a 10-pound sack of potatoes without feeling a punishing jolt in his lower back.

Andre’s life changed in another important way after the accident. Working construction, he earned $18 an hour, but even after a long haul in a workers’ compensation vocational rehabilitation program, the best job he could get, given his disability, was packing groceries at Albertson’s for $5 an hour.

“I got the feeling that, man, I was just kicked out into the cold,” Andre says. “There was nobody standing there to help me whatsoever.” With that realization, nearly two years after his fall, Andre decided to explore his legal rights.

The money Andre eventually received through the courts first reimbursed the state’s workers’ compensation system for his medical costs and lost wages. Andre used the permanent disability money the jury awarded him to return to school, where he retrained in the electronics field. What was far more important, he says is that his case forced the construction industry to begin paying attention to worker safety.

Today, Andre’s last name is synonymous with job-site safety throughout Washington state. In 1991, Andre won a landmark lawsuit that went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court. In Stute v. PBMC, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled that the general contractor on the construction site where he was injured was ultimately responsible for Andre’s injuries because it had violated eight safety laws and codes. A powerful 9-0 vote from the high court justice, which overturned a lower court ruling, concluded that a general contractor has ultimate responsibility for work-site safety. A jury eventually awarded Andre damages, and his case established a precedent for many other injured workers to come forward and receive just compensation for workplace injuries.

As a result, general contractors are much more attentive to safety concerns. Deaths and injuries on job sites have dropped 21% in the past six years*, according to the Department of Labor and Industries.

“I think it’s important to be aware that the Supreme Court in the Stute case was not making new law,” says attorney Brad Crosta, who represented Andre. “The court was merely applying a statute that had previously been enacted to ensure general contractors protect all workers on the job site.”

Since then, however, the construction industry has joined with insurance companies to launch a strategy that would stop injured workers like Andre at the courtroom door. Overruled by the Supreme Court, the alliance is pushing legislation that would deny injured workers their basic right to sue for injuries caused by negligent general contractors. Much to Andre’s dismay, this part of the legislation is often referred to as the “Stute” provision.

“I’m outraged my name is on a proposed law that would hurt workers,” Andre says. “My name is associated with doing something good for the common worker, and that’s how I’d like to keep it.”

Contractors and the insurance industry also support severely restricting the contingency fee system, which allows people to retain an attorney without mortgaging their home or emptying their savings account to do so. Had fee restrictions been in place when Andre was injured, he could not have afforded an attorney and thus would not have been allowed his day in court.

“Had the insurance company just paid me as it should have in the first place, no one would have remembered my name,” says Andre. “If my case can save one person’s life, or save them from going through the excruciating pain that I have suffered and will continue to suffer for the rest of my life, that makes me feel really good.”

 

*1997 Statistics

Excerpted from “A Cause of Action: Washington Families Search for Justice”, a project of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association, 1997