(image by dencg / Shutterstock.com) 

By Tom Morton for County10.com

(Casper, Wyo.) –  A $28.3 million judgment awarded by a federal jury against a Casper apartment complex and its management company tells landlords they must take responsibility for the lives of their tenants, said an attorney and his client, a Casper woman brain- damaged by carbon monoxide poisoning.

“I expected a safe place to live,” Amber Lompe said Friday. “I didn’t get that and it changed my life.”

On Feb. 1, 2011, Lompe awoke in her residence at the Sunridge Apartments, 3900 E. 12th St., felt dizzy and confused, and was barely able to walk, she said. “I was afraid and scared of what was happening.”

In another 15 minutes, she would have been unconscious and dead within the hour, added her attorney Tyson Logan of the Spence Law Firm in Jackson.

A defective furnace caused the level of carbon monoxide – a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas — in the apartment had soared to 500 parts per million or more than 10 times a safe limit, according to the lawsuit.

The Utah-based Sunridge Partners and the Utah-based Apartment Management Consultants were aware that some furnaces needed replacement and already had been responsible for other dangerous carbon monoxide releases, according to court documents.

But that was too late for Lompe, who despite subsequent oxygen and physical therapy still felt exhausted, and could not perform well with cognition tests for memory and reaction time, she said. Lompe recalled playing bingo with her family in Kaycee, and had trouble keeping track of the letters and numbers as they were called, she said. “It got so overwhelming; I started crying and my mom got me out of there.”

As the bills arrived from her neurologist, neuropsychologist, therapists and other health care providers, neither Sunridge Partners nor Apartment Management Consultants would respond to what Lompe’s requests for insurance coverage, she said.

In May 2012, Lompe filed the lawsuit, which began 18 months of legal wrangling culminating in a three-week trial starting Dec. 2 in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne before Judge Alan Johnson.

Logan said attorneys for the apartment complex and the management company denied the damages were real to the point of accusing her of faking her injuries.

Peter Dusbabek, the attorney for Sundridge Partners LLC and Apartment Management Consultants LLC, did not return calls for comment, nor did Apartment Management Consultants’ vice president Brenda Wright.

On Dec. 19, the eight-person jury reached its verdict, awarding Lompe $750,000 in compensatory damages from Sunridge Partners, and $1,950,000 in compensatory damages from Apartment Management Consultants. On Dec. 20, the jury awarded her $3 million in punitive damages from Sunridge Partners and $22.5 million in punitive damages from Apartment Management Consultants. Johnson made the damages formal with an order on Thursday.’

Juries may award punitive damages, according to Johnson’s jury instructions, according to the amount of harm caused by the defendant, “the degree of reprehensibility of the Defendant’s conduct,” the financial position of the defendant, and the costs of litigation “to encourage plaintiffs to bring wrongdoers to trial.”

On Tuesday, the companies’ insurer, Interstate Fire and Casualty Co., filed a request in federal court stating its policies do not cover punitive damage awards for “willful and wanton misconduct,” and asked the court to order that it has no obligation to pay for such awards.

Logan said this amount of punitive damages, rarely awarded, may be the largest for a personal injury lawsuit in state history. But that’s ultimately not the point, he said. The verdict, he said, “shows how important it is and serious it is to not gamble with people’s lives.”

For Lompe, now 23, hard work and therapy can overcome some of the damage to billions of brain cells so she can drive and hold a job, she said. But the traumatic brain injury sidelined her goal of becoming a physical therapist, and she will need to start learning new skills when she re-enters Casper College, she said.

Meanwhile, Lompe posts a lot of reminder notes and needs to make allowances and modifications for what were normal tasks, she said. “On the outside, I appear normal. I have a lot of things I deal with on a daily basis, but some things don’t happen.”