Trespassing NJ teen loses leg — parents sue construction firms
GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP — The parents of a teenager who lost his leg after he broke into an under-construction Hobby Lobby and rode a forklift are suing the construction companies for not properly securing the site.
Alex Cortes had to get his leg amputated above the knee after he jumped off the forklift and the machine pinned and crushed his leg against a pillar, according to the lawsuit.
Alex and his friend, Seth Patterson, who were both 16 years old, had walked onto the site after hours on Aug. 20, 2015. The teens said they decided to engage in "parkour," which Alex described as “climbing over things, jumping over things, stuff like that.”
Alex's parents sued the retailer, the owner and management of The Shoppes at Cross Keys, and the contractors. After Hobby Lobby and The Shoppes settled, a Superior Court judge last year dismissed the lawsuit against the contractors, reasoning that the family had failed to show that the companies knew or should have known that minors were likely to trespass.
But a two-judge panel on Tuesday overturned that decision, citing testimony from the contractors and their company policies.
A construction director for Garrard Construction Group, the general contractor, testified that the project was worth up to $2 million but had a safety budget of just $300.
During depositions for the lawsuit, the two teenagers described the construction site as “completely open” with not even caution tape or plywood blocking their way in. Seth testified that the keys to the forklift were in the ignition.
The superintendent for Garrard said there was no fence or barricade, admitting that that was odd.
The company’s own manual, the appellate decision says, warns that “construction sites are like oil and water for children” and that “like iron and a magnet, children are attracted to any type of construction.”
The manual instructs employees to “erect a fence […] lock up equipment at night. Post ‘No Trespassing’ sings. Ask for regular police patrols […] post a guard.”
The project superintendent for Holz & Henry, which had been hired to prepare surrounding site work, testified that the orange safety fencing, barrels and caution tape on the site were not considered “barricades” in the company’s manual.
Experts hired by the Cortes family testified that because the site was in a busy shopping center that itself was surrounded by a residential neighborhood, an 8-foot fence should have enclosed it.
The companies noted that the teenagers had initially lied to police, claiming that a third person had let them in and that Alex had impaled his leg on rebar, according to the appellate decision’s summary of their arguments.
Alex also acknowledged during depositions that he understood that it was wrong to use other people’s property without their permission.
But in overturning the dismissal, the appellate decision says that “a reasonable fact-finder could conclude that the area was insufficiently secured to prevent minors from entering the construction site and the illuminated Hobby Lobby building.”
The Cortes family was represented by Alfred J. Falcone of Flynn & Associates; John J. Delany III of Delany McBride represented Garrard; and David A. Semple of McCormick & Priore represented Holz & Henry.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.