Byrd Theatre faces $5 million lawsuit

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Carytown's historic Byrd Theatre goes to trial tomorrow, faced with a $5 million lawsuit. An organ repairman sued the theatre after an accident that he says left him blind in one eye.

The famous Wurlitzer organ was installed in the Byrd Theatre in 1928 to accompany silent movies and still entertains moviegoers today.

While the Byrd Theatre Foundation has been working to raise its goal of $5 million to restore the aging theatre, it's been slapped with a $5 million lawsuit.

The suit claims that in May 2009, the Foundation invited David Barnett, of the Organ Historical Society, to repair the Wurlitzer as an unpaid volunteer. The suit alleges that Barnett lost his footing on a loose floor plank and hit his head, resulting in permanent blindness in his right eye, a fractured nose, and scarring.

NBC 12 legal analyst Steven Benjamin, who is not involved in the case, says it could come down to Barnett's status as an invited person to the theatre, and whether anyone knew that plank might be loose.

Said Benjamin, "The question will be whether this was an open and obvious danger and he should have used his own care to avoid it or whether it was a hidden danger and one that was known to the theatre. In which case they have a duty to warn him of that danger."

Neither Barnett nor the Theatre Foundation are commenting on the suit. The Foundation's attorney only told us they think the world of David Barnett, but are not responsible for his injuries.

Since a thief stole the Byrd Cage donation box in 2010, the Foundation has beefed up fundraising to restore the theatre, showing classic films and a screening of Judd Nelson's unreleased film shot at the Jefferson, "Rock N Roll Hotel."

Now, whether this lawsuit will impact the Byrd's future, or a man's future, will play out, not on screen, but in court.

Said Benjamin, "Ultimately that is left up to a jury. So if a jury feels that the defendant in this case was negligent and the negligence caused the loss of sight in one eye, then the question is for the jury, 'what is that worth?'"

The trial is scheduled to run Tuesday through Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court.