$6.5 Million Verdict in Soldier’s Electrocution Upheld on Appeal

February 28, 2008

A federal appeals panel upheld a $6.5 million verdict against a private contractor in the death of an Arkansas soldier who was electrocuted when he leaned back against the metal exterior wall of a latrine.

Pvt. Van Ryan Marcum died June 19, 2004, following an exercise at a firing range at Fort Benning, Ga. Marcum’s estate sued The Shaw Group Inc., which was under contract to demolish several abandoned metal latrines at the Army base. Marcum, 21, was from Prescott, Ark.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis turned away The Shaw Group’s requests for a new trial or a ruling that the company was not responsible.

The Shaw Group, based in Baton Rouge, La., argued that it had no duty to have demolished the latrine, noting that the Army had given it an extension for the demolition work.

“However, the evidence did confirm that Shaw was under a duty to repair and maintain the Malone 14 latrine, to demolish the latrine, and to demolish the latrine in a timely manner,” wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton for the panel, which also included U.S. Circuit Judges James B. Loken and Raymond W. Gruender.

An inspection revealed that the building had a short in wiring to a fan that sent current through the shell of the building.

“When Private Marcum sat down and leaned against the building, he completed the circuit and became the ground,” Benton wrote.

The case was decided in a jury trial presided over by U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes, who denied after-verdict motions by Shaw for a new trial and for a judgment as a matter of law. The jury assigned 75 percent of the fault to the Army and 25 percent of the fault to Shaw. The opinion does not address any obligation of the Army, which was not included in The Shaw Group’s appeal.

The panel also turned away Shaw’s argument that different instructions should have been given to the jury.

“The court properly instructed the jury on expert testimony and the burden of proof,” the court wrote.

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