West Penn Power Co. has appealed a $109 million verdict for the surviving family of a western Pennsylvania woman who was fatally burned by a downed power line in her backyard as her two young daughters and mother-in-law looked on.
The jury award earlier this month in the death of 39-year-old Carrie Goretzka, of Hempfield Township, was the largest ever in Allegheny County.
But now West Penn attorneys contend Common Pleas Judge Michael Della Vecchia erred, among other ways, by allowing the jury to see “gruesome” photos of Goretzka, which prejudiced the jury more than they helped the panel understand her injuries. The utility also takes issue with the closing argument made by the plaintiff’s attorney Shanin Specter, which West Penn contends were full of “outrages” meant to inflame the jury.
Among Specter’s statements objected to by West Penn attorney Avrum Levicoff is, “Let’s start with this: This case never should have been tried. How can they, with a straight face for three-and-a-half weeks, come in here and contest their responsibility for the death of Carrie Goretzka? This is such a moral outrage.”
Specter, on Monday, responded that West Penn should spend less time fighting the verdict – which included $48 million to compensate Michael Goretzka, the couple’s daughters, who are now 8 and 6, and his mother, Joann, 69 – and $61 million in punitive damages.
Specter said it’s “typical” for companies to appeal large verdicts and said “there’s nothing in their appeal papers that is meritorious. The bigger concern that I have today is when are they going to fix the power lines? The jury has spoken about the recklessness of West Penn Power in the maintenance and installation of their power lines.”
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 in June 2009. Michael Goretzka had complained about the line failing at least twice before and the jury agreed those failures were caused by West Penn technicians who didn’t properly clean the power lines with a wire brush before splicing them, which prompted rust the spliced line to overheat and fail.
The line fell on Goretzka while she was on the phone reporting the problem as her daughters stood nearby. Goretzka’s mother-in-law tried to help, but was burned in the process and watched Goretzka suffer for more than 20 minutes while waiting for crews to turn off the power. Goretzka died three days later after her arm badly burned arm was amputated in an effort to save her life.
The state Public Utility Commission filed a complaint in May echoing the lawsuit’s allegations and seeking $86,000 in fines through May 31, plus $1,000 for each day West Penn failed to turn over test results and reports experts conducted on its power lines in mid-2010 which the PUC said it needed to finish its investigation.
PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said West Penn filed a response to the complaint in October and it’s been assigned to an administrative law judge and not yet ruled upon by the commission.
Scott Surgeoner, West Penn’s spokesman, also didn’t immediately respond to Specter’s remarks about West Penn’s appeal.
The PUC complaint said that West Penn Power “failed to furnish and maintain adequate, efficient, safe, and reasonable service and facilities” by not ensuring “the integrity of the splice” and that West Penn didn’t properly train or supervise its workers to ensure they’d properly clean and splice such power lines.
West Penn, Specter said, “needs to engage in a period of corporate introspection. They need to get about the business of fixing their problems.”
“I’m not trying to minimize this case or the plight of Carrie Goretzka, but there’s also the question of who else is going to die,” Specter said.
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