News Briefs

Missouri man awarded $441,000 after rocking chair collapses in state office

By: - November 15, 2022 10:26 am

A Missouri appeals court ruled Monday that the state is liable for injuries suffered when a rocking chair collapsed at the Sikeston Children's Division office (Getty Images).

A defective rocking chair will cost Missouri taxpayers $441,000, the Southern District Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

In a case stemming from a 2015 accident at the Missouri Children’s Division office in Sikeston, the court ruled that Kenneth Gilmore, a grandfather injured when a rocking chair collapsed during a supervised visitation, must be compensated for his medical and other costs.

In its appeal of the Scott County judgment, the Children’s Division argued that it was unreasonable to expect “a dainty rocking chair” to support Gilmore, who is 6-foot-2-inches tall and weighs 325 pounds.

“Like Children’s Division’s chair, this argument collapses,” Judge Mary Sheffield wrote in the unanimous decision.

The Children’s Division hasn’t decided whether to appeal the ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court, Department of Social Services spokeswoman Caitlin Whaley wrote in an email to The Independent.

“DSS is exploring all legal options,” she wrote.

On May 15, 2015, Gilmore and his son went to the Children’s Division office for the son’s supervised visitation with his infant daughter, according to the appeals court opinion. They were directed to a room with a couch, a bookshelf of children’s books and the rocking chair that had been donated by a former employee.

When the child became fussy, Gilmore decided to sit in the rocker with the infant in his arms to calm her. The arms of the chair popped off, the back broke. Gilmore’s shoulders hit the floor, and his head hit the wall. He held onto his granddaughter, who was uninjured.

Gilmore sought medical attention the day after the incident because he “couldn’t hardly walk,” Sheffield wrote.

It wasn’t the first time the chair fell apart while Gilmore was visiting his granddaughter. Two weeks earlier, his then-girlfriend sat in the chair and its arms came off and she described it as “wobbly,” Sheffield noted. The girlfriend, knowing division workers were watching and listening, “sarcastically commented, ‘This is really safe to be in a safe room,’” Sheffield wrote.

Soon after the accident, Gilmore began contacting the office to get the state to pay for his medical care. A risk management supervisor wrote “we’ve accepted liability” in the claim record and directed employees to dispose of the broken chair.

At a trial in September 2021, a Scott County jury awarded $1.25 million in damages to Gilmore, finding the state bore 78% of the responsibility for the accident. Circuit Judge Stephen Mitchell reduced the award by the 22% responsibility assigned to Gilmore, to $975,000.

Because that was more than allowed by state law for lawsuit claims against the state, Mitchell cut the award to the statutory maximum of $441,130, plus interest of 5.25% until paid.

Along with arguing that the chair should not have been expected to hold Gilmore, the division challenged the verdict by claiming it did not intentionally destroy the evidence of the chair and that it was wrong for Mitchell to allow statements from the claim record admitting liability into the trial record.

The state also argued that Mitchell improperly applied the statutory limit on claims. He should have determined what the limit was, the state argued, then reduced that amount by Gilmore’s share of liability.

The court rejected all those arguments, with Sheffield noting that attorneys for the Children’s Division didn’t object to statements from the claim record during trial and that the way the judge calculated the final award was consistent with how other courts have applied the law.

And while the stated reason for disposing of the chair may have been innocent, to prevent someone from reassembling it, Mitchell did not have to believe it, she wrote.

“Under these circumstances,” Sheffield wrote, “we cannot say the trial court’s spoliation order was so unreasonable and arbitrary that it shocks our sense of justice.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.