Strange But True: Personal Injury Cases from Falling Air Conditioners

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When we walk through the streets of a major city, we can’t help but be quietly impressed by the towers of glass and steel which shoot far beyond our heads and into the clouds above.  Urban cathedrals of glass, brick, and steel dazzle and inspire the mind — but they can also injure the body.  When improperly secured objects fall from buildings, they can land on unsuspecting pedestrians below, causing catastrophic injury or even death. In this entry from our “Strange But True” blog series, our premises liability attorneys examine personal injury cases from falling air conditioners.

A Ballpoint Pen is Heavy Enough to Kill

We’ve all heard this urban legend before: “If you drop a penny from the top of the Empire State Building, it’ll kill whoever it lands on!”  If that sounds unlikely, it’s because it is unlikely.  In fact, it’s impossible.  Physicist Louis Bloomfield of the University of Virginia lived to tell the tale of numerous (and ultimately harmless) experiments, making the nonchalant observation, “I think one bounced off my face once.”

The reason pennies cannot kill, even when hurled from the top of the iconic Empire State Building, is simply that they are too light.  Resistance builds beneath the penny as it falls, and by the time it reaches ground level, it’s traveling at a gentle 25 mph. (To kill you, or at least cause a traumatic head injury, it would have to be going 208 mph… slightly faster than 25 mph.)

While Bloomfield dismisses the penny legend, he does state that a wayward ballpoint pen — which isn’t much larger or heavier — could feasibly kill a pedestrian. This means that a falling object need only weigh four or five grams to be lethal. 

NYC Man Struck By Air Conditioner, Sues for $21M

Like most products, air conditioners come with detailed instructions for proper installation.  They caution against trying to jam in an air conditioner which is too big, and against trying to secure an air conditioner which is too small by using towels or other means of padding.

But, air conditioners are expensive.  Extremes of heat and humidity are torturous.  And sometimes, consumers lack the patience to obey safety manuals.  This disregard for installation procedures can lead to tragedy.

In September of 2010, 67-year-old New Yorker Tony Franzese was out for a morning stroll with his dog. Around 8:30 A.M., Franzese was passing the corner of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan when an air conditioner plummeted from the 6th-floor window of a nearby apartment building.  The air conditioner landed on an awning, bounced off as though it had hit a trampoline, and fell onto Franzese’s head.

According to his attorney, Franzese suffered a traumatic brain injury, went into a two-week coma, and endured a heart attack while comatose as a result of the incident.

Incredibly, Franzese survived.  Less incredibly, litigation followed.

Asserting he had suffered through extensive physical and psychological damage, Franzese filed a personal injury lawsuit against the building’s landlords for $21 million. The suit alleged that installing air conditioners so high above the ground — without the use of support brackets — was an act of “gross negligence” by building owner Zenon Chernyk, and that Franzese’s injuries caused permanent damage.  Court documents say that Franzese “received emergency treatment for a skull fracture, concussion and other serious injuries to his head which caused permanent brain damage.”

Chernyk was cited for a violation by the city’s Department of Buildings, and was fined $25,000.

In a bizarre twist, Franzese — a Vietnam veteran who allegedly complained about hearing voices from “outer space” — disappeared while the case was still pending.  “I don’t know what happened to him,” said Franzese’s attorney.  “He refused to go back to that apartment because he was scared to death something else might fall on him.”

While Franzese’s injuries were severe, it’s fortunate that he survived his ordeal.  Others have not been so lucky.

Man Killed by Air Conditioner Falling from 7th Floor Window

37-year-old Vito DeGiorgio of Dobbs Ferry, New York, was walking down East 23rd Street on the afternoon of October 26, 1988.  As he passed beneath 36 East 23rd Street at around 1:20 P.M., an air conditioning unit toppled from a 7th-floor window and struck DiGiorgio on the head.  He was immediately rushed to the Bellevue Hospital Center, but was pronounced dead just over two hours later, at 3:45 P.M.

In DeGiorgio’s case, the unit had fallen not from a residential apartment, but from an office which was rented by family service agency Louise Wise Services.  NYPD Sergeant John Venetucci explained, “A maintenance man was working on the window, and they unscrewed the bottom of the air-conditioner.  When the top part of the window was lifted, the unsecured air-conditioner fell.”

Unlike the air conditioner in Tony Franzese’s case, this particular unit had been installed properly — but negligent maintenance procedures resulted in a wrongful death which could have been avoided.  In another departure from the incident with Franzese, the DeGiorgio accident did not result in any charges.

Falling air conditioners may be an unlikely hazard; but as the cases of Franzese and DeGiorgio starkly demonstrate, the danger for pedestrians is very real.  Air conditioners can be difficult to install securely, and to make matters worse, landlords and other property owners sometimes attempt to cut costs by skipping over basic safety precautions.

If you or someone you love has been injured by a falling air conditioner, you may have a case for a personal injury claim.  For a free and private case evaluation, call the law offices of Reiff & Bily at (215) 274-0072, or contact us online.

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