By Julie Shaw, The Philadelphia Inquirer
An engineer who nearly died after falling 38 feet through a glass ceiling of the Rodin Museum more than three years ago has reached a $7.25 million settlement with defendants including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the museum's security company, lawyers for the man said Tuesday.
On Nov. 26, 2012, Phani Guthula, then 27 and working as an energy efficiency engineer for ICF International, was inspecting lighting fixtures in the museum when he fell.
The settlement was reached last week in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court before jury selection began for a civil trial in the case, Guthula's lawyers Larry Bendesky, David Kwass and David Langsam said.
In his lawsuit, Guthula contended that the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which administers the Rodin Museum, and its security company, AlliedBarton Security Services, failed to protect him from harm when he stepped onto the unprotected glass floor.
At the time, the Rodin had recently completed a $9 million renovation, the suit said.
Sometime before Guthula's fall, the museum had applied for an energy-rate rebate with PECO, the suit said. PECO then requested that ICF perform an energy inspection and provide energy consulting services for the museum, which houses the works of the late French sculptor Auguste Rodin, including the outdoor sculpture of The Thinker, on the tree-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
While conducting the audit, a female AlliedBarton security guard gave Guthula access to the museum's attic area, the lawsuit said. In order to perform the energy audit, Guthula was required to inspect light fixtures located above a glass-paneled surface and the guard told him he could step onto the glass, the suit said.
A glass panel fell and Guthula plummeted 38 feet to the museum floor. His fall was captured by the museum's security cameras.
The 20-by-30-foot glass surface, called a laylight, permits sunlight from a rooftop skylight to shine directly onto the museum floor. A safety barrier set up during the renovation had been partially taken down, permitting Guthula to step out onto the surface.
The museum was open to visitors at the time. No one else was injured, Guthula's lawyers said.
Lawyers for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and AlliedBarton could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
But, in a court filing, AlliedBarton said its security guard had never been properly warned about the safety risks by the museum. It also pointed out that safety warnings, left over from the construction, were posted on the safety barrier.
Kwass said that Guthula may have been out on the glass surface for as long as five minutes before he crashed through. Guthula has partially recovered, but walks slowly and suffers from an inability to concentrate at times and a lack of energy, Kwass said. Guthula is engaged and plans to marry in the coming months, he said.
Norman Keyes, director of communications for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, confirmed in an email Tuesday that the museum "participated in the settlement of a dispute related to the tragic accident in 2012 at the Rodin Museum."
Keyes wrote that "the settlement involved several parties in addition to the Museum" and contended there was some type of safety precaution put in place.
Keyes did not expand on his statement, only saying in a second email that the Philadelphia Museum of Art "would simply like to say that it has always adhered to the highest safety standards and complied with all legal requirements regarding safety."
Besides the Philadelphia Museum of Art and AlliedBarton, defendants in the suit were L.F. Driscoll, a construction company, and Elliott-Lewis, a maintenance company. L.F. Driscoll and Elliott-Lewis had performed construction and maintenance work at the Rodin.
Bendesky, one of the plaintiff's lawyers, said his side only intended to bring claims against the Philadelphia Museum of Art and AlliedBarton at trial, contending they were the parties responsible for Guthula's injuries.
Last Wednesday, he said, the defendants except AlliedBarton collectively offered a $2.5 million settlement to the plaintiff.
Then, on Friday, he said the plaintiff's side settled separately with AlliedBarton for $4.75 million.
Bendesky said he does not know how much, if anything, L.F. Driscoll and Elliott-Lewis paid as part of the $2.5 million settlement. John Livingood Jr., the attorney for Elliott-Lewis, said he could not comment on whether his client was a party to the settlement. An attorney for L.F. Driscoll could not be reached for comment.
Asked whether there were any safety precautions in place, Bendesky said L.F. Driscoll posted a sign in a corner of the glass-floored attic above the main gallery that said "Danger" and warned that "fall protection" was needed beyond that point. But, he said, neither Guthula nor the security guard saw it.
Bendesky said his client's fall was reminiscent of one of Rodin's most famous sculptures, "The Gates of Hell."
"The chilling picture of Phani Guthula falling nearly to his death could have the same title; his life has been a living hell every day since his fall," Bendesky said. "His accident was totally preventable had those responsible for his safety just done their job."
The suit contended the defendants were negligent, and Guthula's lawyers said a trial would have proved that.
Said Kwass: "Testimony at trial clearly would have demonstrated that the defendants failed miserably in their duty to protect Mr. Guthula. Guard railings installed to keep people off the glass floor were not in place, security personnel who escorted him to the site were uninformed and inattentive, and there was no signage to warn against a fall hazard to which everyone -- after the accident -- agreed existed when he almost met his death."
Guthula, who at the time lived in North Wales, Montgomery County, suffered femur, hip, pelvic, rib and elbow fractures and other traumatic injuries from head to toe, his attorneys said.
He was hospitalized for more than 45 days, has had more than 15 surgeries and requires intensive ongoing medical care.
He has returned to work as an energy consultant at a different firm, but is no longer able to do the same kind of field work he was doing before, Kwass said.
Staff writer Chris Mondics contributed to this article.
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