Iowa City landlord ordered to pay $5.6M in worker's death

A prominent Iowa City landlord was ordered to pay $5.6 million in damages Tuesday after jurors held him responsible for the 2014 death of a maintenance worker.

A jury ruled that Jeffrey Clark, manager of Apartments Downtown, Inc., was "grossly negligent" in the death of 40-year-old Bronson Ganka, who fell from a ladder while working on one of Clark's properties.

Jurors awarded $7 million in damages to Ganka's widow and three children as part of the verdict, which was issued late Monday. A judge reduced the verdict Tuesday to $5.6 million because jurors assessed that Ganka was 20 percent at fault.

Apartments Downtown has long been the dominant apartment rental company in Iowa City, housing thousands of University of Iowa students. Owned and operated by the Clark family, the company has faced complaints and class-action lawsuits over its treatment of tenants over the years.

Ganka, a handyman for the company who often installed carpet, fell from a ladder in April 2014 while trying to drill a hole above an awning to a downtown Iowa City business. He suffered serious injuries after landing on the sidewalk 12 feet below, went into a coma and died 11 days later.

Ganka had previously used a boom truck that had a basket and safety guardrails to perform similar work. But Clark, his supervisor, denied Ganka's requests to use the truck before his death because it would have required the company to get a permit to block off a busy street, said Pressley Henningsen, an attorney for Ganka's family. Instead, Ganka climbed up a household ladder on a crooked sidewalk to do the task.

The evidence revealed that Apartments Downtown had no safety program prior to Ganka's death even though the company owns numerous multi-story buildings and is building more, Henningsen said.

He said the verdict was reasonable and sends a message.

"It really is a testament to these jurors saying, 'if you are going to be the supervisor, then lead. Provide training. Provide safety. Provide the right equipment. Don't take it away'," he said.

The Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Apartments Downtown for serious safety violations after Ganka's death, saying employees hadn't been instructed or trained to avoid hazards, were not wearing hard hats and used ladders on unstable surfaces. The company agreed to correct those violations and pay a $5,250 settlement.

At the weeklong trial, attorneys for Clark denied that he was negligent and argued that Ganka's own actions caused his death. But jurors found that Clark was 80 percent to blame and awarded damages for past and future pain and suffering for Ganka's widow and children.

Clark's attorney didn't immediately return a phone message.