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Risky Business: Dangerous decorating

By Mary Ann Gormly

December 1, 2023

A man and his family lived in a neighborhood that decorated for every holiday. From just after Labor Day until mid-January as one decorating occasion finished up, the next bunch of scary skeletons, gobbling turkeys, Christmas lights or festive snowmen were put into place. The peak on his house was quite a bit higher than the rest of his house and the ladder he owned would not reach that high safely. On each occasion, he rented a ladder from a rental store in his area. This year was no exception. He contacted the employees at the rental store, scheduled a time for delivery and the ladder was on its way to his home.

He worked his way up the peak on his house, climbing up and down the ladder when appropriate to move the ladder into place to decorate the next area. When he was approximately three to four rungs from the top, the support bracket on the foot of the ladder suddenly, and without warning, bent inward causing the ladder to become unstable and the man fell to the ground.

The ladder had been placed on his concrete driveway for the best stability so when he fell, he landed on the hard surface. He reportedly landed on his backside and left foot resulting in a heel fracture to his left foot, and a very sore body.

A phone call was made to their insurance company when the rental store manager became aware of the accident. They explained that there were no known prior problems with the ladder. Although they were not exactly sure when it was purchased, it was bought new with a manufacturing date of eight years prior to the accident.

A fiberglass ladder should not have deteriorated in that timeframe. So, what happened? An investigation was opened and all aspects of the accident were reviewed. It seems the storage place for the ladders was behind the rental store in an enclosed area that was made of wood. The top was open to the elements and day after day, month after month, year after year for eight years when the ladders were not in use, they were sitting in the bright sunlight, the freezing ice and snow, and the pouring rain.

During the investigation, the claims adjuster discovered that some forms of fiberglass should not be left out in the elements. They found that constant exposure to subvisible rays of light can cause a weakening of the glass fibers in some fiberglass products. In fact, the instructions that came with the ladder had this warning:

“You should not leave the ladder outside, as fiberglass can begin to break down in heat and sun, making it less safe over time. UV light is especially damaging to fiberglass, so having a clear storage solution in mind is a must.”

While the accident was being investigated, the injured man was contacting an attorney. They planned to sue the rental store for his injuries. The first demand they presented was more than $3 million. The man had suffered multiple injuries including a fractured heel.

He was largely incapacitated for over a year following his accident and had two surgeries. He was a young man and estimated his future loss of earnings was $1.4 million.

During mediation prior to going to trial, the claim was settled between the man and the rental store for just over half a million dollars. Considered in the settlement was the possibility that the man may have had some liability for reaching out from the center of the ladder, but also a manufacturer’s defect.

The settlement amount was used to extricate the rental store from the suit so it could move forward against the manufacturer.

It is always a good plan of action to review the paperwork that comes with all of your equipment and verify you are not only storing it in the safest manner for the longevity of the equipment, but also for the safety of your customers.

Mary Ann Gormly is a loss analyst for ARA Insurance, Overland Park, Kan. For more information, call 800-821-6580 or visit