Whose Hole Is It? 

Personal injury lawsuit has city, developer fighting over 30-foot plunge.

click to enlarge street19_manhole_200.jpg

The sidewalk didn't end, but Edinburgh Williams fell 30 feet into a mysterious abyss on Grace Street nonetheless.

His personal injury lawsuit, filed recently in Richmond Circuit Court, has morphed into a legal skirmish between the two defendants — the city of Richmond and Washington-based developer Douglas Jemal — over who owns a hole in the 200 block of East Grace Street.

In his lawsuit, Williams, 28, charges that he was walking down the street late one winter night last year when he fell into a 6-foot-by-4-foot rectangular manhole in the north sidewalk of East Grace along Second and Third streets.

The Virginia Beach resident is suing for $1 million in damages from the city and Jemal's Broad, the operator of the building adjacent to the sidewalk: 222 E. Grace St., behind the old Central National Bank Building, also operated by Jemal's Broad.

“My client was doing nothing out of the way,” says Williams' attorney, Joseph Massie. “He was in intensive care for about four days.” Massie estimates his client's medical bills at $55,000. “He has some serious back injuries,” he says.

Neither Jemal nor the city owns up to the hole.

Jemal's lawyer charges in a court filing that “the accident happened on City-owned property.”

City attorney Nicholas Simopoulos says in a filing that the hole is not a manhole, as Williams characterizes it in his original suit, but rather an opening leading to a 437-square-foot underground coal bin attached to the 222 E. Grace building — a taxable encroachment in the public right of way.

The city's response points to tax records from the city assessor's office noting the presence of the coal bin, local laws governing encroachments and a 1952 city ordinance that authorizes the Central National Bank building to operate “certain areas under the surface” of Broad and Third streets.

Henry Spaulding, the lawyer representing Jemal, says that while the 1952 ordinance may render Jemal arguably responsible for any part of the hole below the sidewalk, the city is responsible for the above-ground metal grate meant to protect the public from the chute, which presumably failed when Williams fell.

“The city put the grate there — we didn't put the grate there,” Spaulding says, “and we don't have responsibility for maintaining that grate.” He adds that the area was well lighted. Spaulding also points to a toxicology report showing Williams' blood alcohol level at the time was more than twice the legal limit.

Massie concedes that his client, who stands about 5-foot-11 and weighs between 180 and 190 pounds, was drunk, but it doesn't matter. “He wasn't jumping up and down on it,” Massie says. “If he was sober he probably would have killed himself,” he says, referring to a sober person's tendency to brace before a fall.

Massie stands next to the alleged manhole on a recent Friday afternoon, testing the metal grate with his foot. “I'm not sure how secure that is right now,” he says.

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