When Jason Courtney fell into an uncovered manhole last October and had to eat snakes and bugs in order to survive for nine days in a sewage-filled room, he was pretty sure it would end up being the toughest challenge of his life.
He couldn’t have known what would happen afterward.
“I have nightmares,” Courtney told Free Press Houston in an interview this week about the personal injury lawsuit he’s planning. “I get close to any kind of hole and I start freaking out. I have panic attacks. Since October I haven’t even sat on the toilet once to take a shit. I do it in the shower. I don’t even want to touch my own ass any more. I don’t want to touch shit anymore; I was down in a shit hole.”
Making things even worse are the medical bills for his shattered ankle and related treatment, which Courtney said are in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“I got no job, I can’t work — my leg is totally screwed up,” he said. “I’m sitting here with no money in my pocket.”
After a late night road crew heard his screams and he was rescued from the drain by firefighters on Oct. 16, Courtney said he had hoped a legal payday from a slam dunk lawsuit against the city would cover his medical expenses and even give him enough cash to buy land somewhere, or at least a truck.
Five months later, his case — which Courtney said will eventually be filed against the Texas Department of Transportation, for jurisdictional reasons — hasn’t seen much progress. He has a GoFundMe page set up, but updates on the $2 million he wants from the government (“I won’t take anything less,” Courtney said) are slow in coming.
“I talked to my lawyer on Monday, he said it would probably be a couple weeks before we hear anything,” Courtney said. “I want a settlement but those bastards always want to low ball you and two million is the lowest I would take. I almost died down there! There was no way for me to get out and now I’m going to be out of work for the the rest of my life. I can barely walk 10 feet. I’m just going to sit here and wait ’til I hear from my lawyer.”
Courtney’s lawyer Mike Talabi didn’t return calls for comment, but judging from another lawsuit involving someone who fell into a manhole, Courtney might be waiting a long time.
Marcus Gustafsson was a 26-year-old student in medical school in Philadelphia when he fell into an uncovered manhole on his way to catch the bus in 2004. He wasn’t in the drain for very long, but the 20-foot fall broke his back and he wasn’t able to finish medical school.
“I wasn’t able to become a doctor,” Gustafsson told FPH. “I haven’t really worked since the accident, it completely turned everything upside down. I was practically bedridden for over 10 years, it was pretty rough.”
Gustafsson sued the energy company that owned the manhole, but it took nearly four years for his case to go to trial. And even though a jury ended up awarding him $18 million — the largest personal injury verdict awarded by a United States jury in 2008 — Gustafsson said it was a long and expensive process to get to that point.
“When I fell I thought it would all be finished incredibly quick — we’re going to do this and it’s going to be done,” Gustafsson said. “I even thought I would be going back to school immediately; I got my wife, she was my girlfriend then, to go get my notes ‘cause I lost them in the hole. But then I wasn’t able to go back to school. You sort of think it’s just a bump in the road but it’ll get better. That’s not what happened.
It actually was an ordeal, and much more complicated than I expected,” he said. “It took four years before the case went to trial and that was considered expedited.”
Gustafsson’s trial lasted four weeks and was “ridiculously involved,” he said. Engineers, sworn in as expert witnesses for both parties in the suit, debated how manholes should best be secured. Medical experts discussed how bad Gustafsson’s condition actually was. The fact that a homeless man had stolen the cover also complicated the issue of who was at fault.
“On a personal level, you feel like ‘it was their hole, it wasn’t secured, I fell in,’” Gustafsson said. “But that’s just not how it goes.”
Ultimately, he said, the idea was to pass as much blame as possible to him.
“They’ll find any reason to blame you,” Gustafsson said. “Any percentage of blame they can shift to you is less money they have to pay. A lot of it was them saying they didn’t have a responsibility to totally secure the manhole and that it was unreasonable for them to have to do anything more. After the verdict they ended up welding all their manhole covers closed.”
While Gustafsson got a multi-million dollar verdict — with hundreds of thousands of that going to legal expenses and medical bills — he said the energy company had offered to settle for about $250,000 before the case even started.
“Most people say $200,000 – that’s a lot,” he said. “But that wouldn’t have covered the cost of my hospitalization. I wouldn’t have ended up getting any of that. It had to approach a million before I could see anything. I was lucky because my parents were able to help with legal costs. You’re stuck not able to work with a lot of medical bills and it can last years. That’s not something that a lot of people can normally deal with.”