A rush to open Staples Center in time for the Lakers’ 1999-2000 season led the owners to take shortcuts in the design of luxury suites, contributing to the death 11 years later of a toddler who fell over a 10-inch-high glass barrier spanning the rear of a food and beverage shelf, an attorney told a jury Thursday.
Visitors were never warned to stay off the shelf or about the low level of the glass, with the only signs in the suites telling them about alcohol discounts and to keep children away from refrigerators, said lawyer Scott Wellman, who represents the parents of 34-month-old Lucas Tang, who died on Nov. 21, 2010.
But Dana Fox, an attorney for the owners and operators of the arena, told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury hearing the case that the boy fell 25 feet to his death because of his mother’s negligence.
The lawyer said Hoia Mi Nguyen hoisted her son onto a beverage shelf and did not watch him closely enough while she photographed him against the background of the arena where the Lakers were playing that night.
“This accident was caused by a terrible lapse in judgment by Ms. Nguyen,” Fox said in he opening statement.
Nguyen and Henry Tang of Garden Grove filed their lawsuit in May 2011 against Staples Center owners and operators L.A. Arena Co. and L.A. Arena Funding. They sat in the front row and occasionally wept during the opening statements.
Wellman said the plaintiffs never obtained permission from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety to build the ledges of the type from which the boy fell and knew that guests regularly sat or stood on them.
Using photographs, he showed how the glass behind the shelf is higher at the point where patrons step down into the lower seating area of the suites, but is only 10 inches tall in front of the seats.
The couple and their friends pooled their assets to rent a suite that night, which was Lucas’ first time seeing a basketball game, Wellman said. Dressed in Lakers gear, the couple and their friends took photos with the arena in the backdrop by sitting on the shelf, Wellman said.
After the others departed, Nguyen decided to take some more images of Lucas with her iPhone, Wellman said. She took four photos while her son stood in front of the higher portion of the glass, but he moved to his right, where the glass height was lower, and “in the blink of an eye” fell over it to the surface below, Wellman said.
Lucas’ parents rushed to where their son had fallen, he said.
“She (Nguyen) was so distraught that she had to be helped down,” Wellman said.
Lucas was lying in a pool of blood and had a broken arm and leg, the attorney said. The tot died later that night.
“They (his parents) were with him when he took his last breath,” Wellman said.
Wellman said construction workers toiled 24 hours a day to open the arena in time for the Lakers’ 1999-2000 season and that the design of the shelf from which Lucas fell was never submitted to the city for review and approval.
“This may have been the first fall, but we must make it the last fall,” Wellman said.
Fox countered that the building plans were fully approved by the city and a certificate of occupancy issued before the arena opened. He said that before Lucas died, nearly 4 million guests had safely used the Staples Center suites and that no one had ever fallen from one of them.
Fox said Lucas was so restless that his mother spent most of the time in the hallway outside the suite with him. He said Nguyen looked down after each of the four photos she took and that she did not pay sufficient attention to her son.
“He’s all alone on that rail,” Fox said. “Without her controlling him, he leans over and falls.”
Ken Gill, the city planner who reviewed the plans for Staples Center, testified that the shelf was not included in the drawings submitted to the Department of Building and Safety. He said he would not have approved the plans if the shelf was included.
Gill said the plans he saw showed a glass barrier standing up to 26 inches from the floor without a shelf. He said he first learned about the shelf after the boy’s death.
— Wire reports