Slip-and-fall verdict largest ever in Hawaii

Jamie Winpenny

In October of 2010, Beverly Munguia of Texas slipped and fell while patronizing a McDonald’s restaurant on the island of Maui. She suffered a severe spinal injury that left her confined to a wheelchair most of time. The incident resulted in a lawsuit that delivered the largest financial remuneration in a slip-and-fall case in Hawaii history. It also resulted in a lifelong friendship between Mrs. Munguia and attorney Michael Cruise of Leavitt, Yamane & Soldner.

It is an interesting example of how many factors in slip-and-fall cases are crucial for a jury’s deliberations on a verdict. Inconsistent testimony by witnesses for the Defense was also a factor in the jury returning a verdict in the Plaintiffs’ favor. The Defendant’s original offer for an out-of-court settlement was $50,000.00. The final jury verdict after appeal awarded Mrs. Munguia $5.67 million in general and special damages, the largest award in a non-malpractice lawsuit in Hawaii history.

The case, Mungia v. Gelwyn of Maui, LLC, was filed in federal course due to the fact that the plaintiff is a resident of Texas. The injuries she sustained required the placement of metal rods and pins in her back that likely resulted in a subsequent injury to another part of her spine. She was left with a spinal deformity that resulted in her being forced to walk with a pronounced stoop and severely limited mobility.

During the trial, Dr. Rodney Isom, a rehabilitation specialist, testified that Mrs. Munguia would be permanently disabled from work, resulting in lost wages of nearly $500,000.00. Plaintiffs also submitted evidence that Mrs. Munguia would suffer chronic pain and require daily assistance for her basic living needs.  Further evidence was submitted that cost of a life-care plan for Mrs.Mungia was $2,100,000.00. Dr. Rober Male, an economic damages expert testified that Mrs. Munguia would suffer total economic damages of $2,654,100.00.

The extreme physical and emotional damages suffered by Mrs. Munguia because of the fall played a significant role in the verdict rendered by the jury. Her inability to return to work caused her great sadness and depression, as did the fact that she was now unable to hold her grandchildren. She became forced on a daily basis to decide whether to suffer extreme physical pain or take pain medication that left her in a foggy, diminished mental state.

The Plaintiffs presented evidence in the case that the Defendant, Gelwyn of Maui, LLC, utilized a mode of operation that created a reasonably foreseeable risk of harm. Testimony was also provided by expert witness Richard Gill that employees of the McDonald’s had not been following cleaning protocols set forth by McDonald’s, and that created a condition that allowed for the buildup of slippery substances on the floor of the restaurant.

Mr. Gill also offered evidence that a therapeutic boot worn by Mrs. Munguia because of tendonitis was not a factor in the fall, nor was the casual footwear on her other foot.

“It’s a very big deal,” says Michael Cruise. “[The Defendant] had a responsibility to run a safe establishment.” He says that Mrs. Munguia’s life is changed forever because of the injuries she sustained. She is confined to a wheelchair and now unable to perform volunteer work, something she enjoyed and her community relied on.

Cruise discussed the large amount of “overwhelming evidence” of the Defendant’s failure to provide a safe environment. Cruise also noted that other McDonald’s restaurants have a history of similar incidents, although fact was not a part of Mrs. Munguia’s case.

“We speak on a weekly basis,” says Cruise. “She made me a Hawaiian quilt,” to express her gratitude for Cruise’s diligent and dogged dedication to her case.

When it is suggested that Mrs. Munguia might see Michael Cruise as a sort of angel that looked after her, he is immediately dismissive.

“She’s the real angel, here,” Cruise says.