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10 years after elevator accident, man still hasn't collected his millions


The carpenter's attorney called the latest appeals decision "a win for us," because it didn't reverse the judge's action but asked him to explain it better

MORRISTOWN -- In 2005, carpenter Richard Tufaro from Sussex County suffered spinal and shoulder injuries in an elevator accident at the high-rise Headquarters Plaza in Morristown.

Ten years and two favorable, multi-million-dollar jury verdicts later, the now 58-year-old Tufaro still hasn't collected anything from his lawsuit against Schindler Elevator Corp., Headquarters Plaza and other parties.

Under a decision announced Monday by a state appeals court, Tufaro will have to wait some more. The case is headed back to Superior Court in Morristown for a third time.

But Tufaro's attorney, Andrew Fraser, called the decision "absolutely a win for us" and said he finally sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

Fraser pointed out that the appeals decision upheld the verdict, but mainly asked the judge to provide a better explanation of his reasons for upholding the jury award of $7.75 million. 

Tufaro and his wife, Sharon, were initially awarded $5.79 million following a jury trial in 2012.

RELATED: Second jury increased the award

After the appeals panel reversed that verdict and sent it back to Morristown for a second trial, a second jury in 2014 awarded the even greater amount -- $7.75 million -- and the judge announced a total award of $10.3 million, including interest.

In its decision Monday, the appeals panel ruled that while there were errors in the second trial, they were "not capable of producing an unjust result."

However, the court said, the judge's analysis of Schindler's request to reduce the award was "inadequate under the Supreme Court's most recent guidance," so the case must go back to the Superior Court for further review and, possibly, a third trial to determine damages. 

The decision on what to do will rest with Judge Edward Gannon, who heard the second trial, and Gannon has already declined to hold a third trial, Fraser said.

"The appellate division is just asking him to write down his reasons," Fraser said.

The main attorney representing Schindler and the other defendants, Ronald Riccio, was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

Tufaro, from Branchville, was working on a remodeling project in the lobby of Headquarters Plaza on Aug. 19, 2005. At the end of the work day, he got in the elevator to return to the lowest level of the parking garage, four stories below. He was wearing a tool belt, which weighed 30 pounds, and was carrying his 75-pound tool bag on his shoulder, according to testimony.

While descending, the elevator was "shaking (and) very bumpy," and eventually, according to Tufaro, it came to a "very abrupt stop," throwing him into the elevator's instrument panel.

Tufaro, then 48, suffered spinal injuries that resulted in nerve damage to his neck and back, herniated discs in his vertebrae and a shoulder injury that required surgery, according to his attorney, Fraser.

"He has never worked since, because of permanent spinal injuries," Fraser said.

From about 2007 to 2010, Schindler took "secret surveillance" of Richard Tufaro, but that strategy backfired when it showed how seriously he was injured, Fraser said in a 2014 interview.

"It showed him doing nothing, gaining weight, shuffling off to his mailbox and other people doing work on his house," said Fraser.

In its Monday decision, the court rejected the defense arguments that the judge's ruling over what testimony might be admitted had prejudiced the jury.

During a trial in which medical experts testified for both sides, the court said it agreed with the judge's determination that no "individual error or the cumulative effect of any claimed error was clearly and convincingly the cause of any miscarriage of justice under the law."

However, the court also cited the defense motion that the award of $7.75 million was "excessive based upon the evidence, and excessive when compared to other similar factual scenarios."

"We agree that the judge failed to conduct the necessary analysis in deciding the motion, and we therefore reverse and remand for further proceedings," the judges concluded. 

Ben Horowitz may be reached at bhorowitz@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @HorowitzBen. Find NJ.com on Facebook. 

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