MODESTO -- The insurance carrier for the Gallo Center for the Arts has filed a damage claim against Stanislaus County, threatening to strain a partnership that provides arts and entertainment to Modesto-area residents.
The Cooper & Cooper law firm of Fresno filed the papers Nov. 16 charging that the county was responsible for injuries to 78-year-old Mary Brunn, who fell in the center's Mary Stuart Rogers Theater on Oct. 1, 2009.
The damage claim, often a precursor to a lawsuit, was filed on behalf of the Gallo Center for the Arts Inc., which has not been able to settle a lawsuit brought by Brunn's attorney. The center has liability coverage through the Philadelphia Insurance Co., which is represented by Cooper & Cooper.
Lynn Dickerson, chief executive officer of the Gallo Center, said the nonprofit group that runs the center was not happy about the legal maneuver.
"It's a very unfortunate situation between insurance companies and not one the Gallo Center wants to be involved in," Dickerson said. "The decision to file the suit was made by our insurance company, and we were not involved in that decision."
Attorney Joseph Cooper Sr. of the Fresno law firm did not return messages Monday.
The action prolongs a Sept. 26, 2011, personal-injury lawsuit filed by Brunn in Stanislaus County Superior Court. She is represented by the Brunn & Flynn law offices of Modesto, which includes her husband, Charles Brunn, and son, Gerald Brunn.
Mary Brunn was attending the event "An Evening of Hope" held by Memorial Medical Center at the Gallo Center more than three years ago. She fell as she was walking down to her seat from the second floor of the theater.
According to facts in the Cooper & Cooper damage claim, her husband took her to the emergency room after the event and her arm was put in a cast. X-rays later showed her wrist was broken in three places; she also had joint and knee injuries, the claim says.
Her bills for surgery and other medical care have exceeded $75,000, "but are believed to be greater than that amount to date," the claim says.
An attempt to resolve Brunn's lawsuit through mediation was not successful, leading the Gallo Center's insurance carrier to go after the county. Charles Brunn said Monday he did not know the total figure sought by the lawsuit, saying his son had been involved with the mediation and was not available.
County Counsel John Doering said the insurance company's claim will be considered by the Board of Supervisors next week. He will recommend returning the claim letter to the insurance company because it's late by more than 2½ years. Damage claims against the county must be filed within six months of the incident, he said.
The county oversaw construction of the Gallo Center, which was completed in 2007, and contributed $15 million to the project. It owns the downtown Modesto center but leases it to the nonprofit Gallo Center for the Arts Inc., which operates the center, books entertainment and runs the events.
Doering said the agreement specifies that the nonprofit group is responsible for defending the center against personal-injury claims.
"(The Gallo Center) has been dealing with this case for years," Doering said. "There are no design or construction defects, the center was built according to code, and the facility is safe and secure. It's unfortunate this individual injured herself, but we don't think it is any fault of the county or the Gallo Center."
Charles Brunn said his wife was injured because there were handrails on only one side of the stairs. He said he was talking with people elsewhere in the theater when she fell.
"She was walking down the stairs, with a load of people behind her and ushers trying to get everyone to their seats," he said. "As she started to fall, she reached for a handrail and guess what no handrail, so down she went."
Attorney: Risky conditions
The attorney said the lawsuit was filed to call attention to dangerous conditions in the theaters. The law firm obtained records from the Gallo Center showing 25 falls have occurred in one theater and 40 in the other since the center opened in 2007.
"We are very concerned about it, and no one that we talked to at the Gallo Center was concerned," Brunn said, adding that his wife deserves compensation for her injuries.
Dickerson countered that the 65 falls have not resulted in serious injuries and that this is the only lawsuit filed against the center. The number represents less than one-hundredth of a percent of the 850,000 people who have attended events at the center in 5½ seasons, she said.
Doering said that after the county returns the claim to Philadelphia Insurance, the company's lawyers could ask a judge to allow them to seek a late claim against the county. If the judge were to give approval, the county would file a court action stating that the Gallo Center group is responsible for defending personal-injury claims, something it did after Brunn's lawsuit against the center was filed in 2011.
Meanwhile, Brunn's lawsuit is set for a settlement conference Feb. 19.
Bill O'Brien, county board chairman for the past year, said he does not have hard feelings about the insurance company's damage claim. "I think it's one of those insurance company deals. They will get that resolved," O'Brien said.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.