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Jury orders Arizona to pay $4.3M for injuries to worker

PHOENIX — A jury has awarded a Tonopah, Arizona man and his wife about $4.3 million for injuries he received while working in an Arizona Department of Transportation electronics room.

The verdict from a Maricopa County Superior Court jury came after the man said the state failed to properly monitor air conditioning units and backup batteries overheated, flooding the room with sulfuric acid gas.

Telecommunications equipment technician Paul Clabough was awarded $3.85 million for injuries to his lungs that have left him totally disabled and unable to work. His wife, Pamela Clabough, was awarded $500,000.

The award will help Paul Clabough deal with his injuries, Scottsdale attorney Danny Adelman said Friday.

“It’s a really horrible injury. Mr. Clabough, he had some minor respiratory things, allergies and even minor asthma, before,” Adelman said. “But he had a stellar work history. He’d never missed work. He built his own barns and shooed his own horses, and he was just an incredibly active guy. And this just completely changed his life.”

The jury award, while large, is not one of the largest in recent memory, said Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich. The office is considering its next step, including whether to appeal, Anderson said.

Clabough, who worked for a contractor, was called to the Arizona Department of Transportation’s facility in south Phoenix in August 2010 because a telecommunications switch was failing inside a set of rooms that housed communications and computer equipment. When the door to the secure room was opened, it was at least 140 degrees inside, instead of the normal 70-75 degree temperature, Adelman said.

Clabough could hear the failing switch squealing, so went inside the room to fix it. After about 20 minutes, he began to feel stinging in his eyes, and then on his skin, so he left the room and doused himself with water. Returning to the rooms, he noticed a bank of backup batteries that appeared to have overheated and ruptured.

At home that night, Clabough felt slightly better, but he began getting a hacking cough that got progressively worse. Two nights later, he awoke unable to breathe, and his wife took him to a hospital.

Doctors determined that he suffered from a toxic acid inhalation injury, Adelman said.

The electronics room should have had a backup air conditioner or sensors with alarms that sounded to alert Department of Transportation staff well before the room overheated enough to damage the batteries, Adelman said.

Lawyers for Arizona argued to the jury that Clabough’s injury was the result of a severe bout of acid reflux that happened a few days after he was in the electronics room, Adelman said. The jury rejected that argument in Tuesday’s verdict, finding the injuries were caused by the leaking batteries. Judge Dawn Bergin had earlier found the Department of Transportation was negligent in maintaining the batteries.

Clabough, now 62, will have to repay an estimated $180,000 in workers compensation benefits he has received, because of rules banning double recovery.

Adelman said he offered to settle the case for an amount well below what the jury awarded his client, and he blamed state officials for not accepting they were responsible for his client’s injuries and offering compensation.

“It really was a failure to accept responsibility,” Adelman said. “They never were seriously engaging in settlement discussions.”