Jury awards $109M in power line death

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — West Penn Power Co. hasn’t decided whether to appeal a $109 million wrongful death verdict awarded to the husband and family of a woman who was killed by a falling power line in her backyard, being burned for more than 20 minutes while her mother-in-law and two young daughters watched and waited for utility crews to turn off the electricity.


Allegheny County juror Thomas Swogger said the panel, which deliberated less than two hours before Thursday’s verdict, “wanted to send a message that not applying safe practices across the board is not acceptable.”


The attorney for the family of Carrie Goretzka argued West Penn Power Co. failed to properly train workers for years before her June 2009 death, even after Goretzka’s husband told the utility months before that he was concerned for his family’s well-being because the spliced power line in their backyard failed twice previously.


Attorney Shanin Specter contends the power company didn’t properly train its workers to use a wire brush to clean the power lines before they were spliced. By failing to do that, the splices were more likely to rust, which causes them to overheat and fail, Specter said.


Goretzka, 39, was killed when she went outside to make a cellphone call when she saw a backyard tree burning because the line had again overheated, cutting power to the house. The line fell on her while she spoke, as her daughters, aged 4 and 2, stood nearby. Goretzka’s mother-in-law was also there and tried to help, but was burned in the process and was forced to watch Goretzka suffer.


“Twenty-five minutes of the most gruesome pain and suffering a human being can endure,” Specter said.


Goretzka had several fingers severed from her left hand and her left arm was amputated as doctors sought to save her, but she died three days later.


During his closing argument West Penn attorney Avrum Levicoff said Goretzka put herself in harm’s way by standing under the power line while making the cell call. “I’m not blaming anybody,” Levicoff said. “What I am suggesting is you need to determine why that occurred.”


Specter called that argument “deeply, deeply offensive” to Goretzka’s husband, Michael, and other relatives and said, “Trying to blame her is reprehensible.”


Levicoff said he didn’t know if the company would appeal and a company spokesman, Scott Sturgeoner, seconded that in a statement that said the verdict was still being reviewed.


Common Pleas Judge Michael Della Vecchia said the verdict was the largest personal injury award in the history of Allegheny County.


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