West Penn Power Co. drops appeal of $109 million wrongful death verdict, largest such award in state history

By Jon Campisi | Feb 21, 2013

A western Pennsylvania power company has decided not to appeal a $109 million jury

verdict from a wrongful death case that arose from the burning death of a mother who died in front of her two children after being struck by a falling power line outside of her home.

The defendant in the case, West Penn Power Co., had initially stated that it would be challenging the verdict, which is believed to be the largest personal injury verdict in Pennsylvania history – it included more than $60 million in punitive damages – but it now says there will be no appeal, according to an Associated Press report.

West Penn confirmed that the parties have instead entered into a $105 million settlement in the case, which arose from the death of 39-year-old Carrie Goretzka, who died in the summer of 2009 after being struck by a falling power line.

The woman had gone outside to make a cellphone call when she noticed one of her trees had caught fire due to a power line that was not properly spliced, the record shows.

Media reports state that during the civil trial in Allegheny County this past December, Michael Goretzka had testified that he and his wife had previously complained to the power company about the fact that lines had fallen at least twice before in the past.

The jury ended up agreeing that the defendant’s failures were caused by West Penn technicians who hadn’t properly cleaned the power lines with a wire brush before splicing them, which caused the development of rust and ultimately led to the splice overheating and failing, according to the Associated Press and court papers.

The complaint had stated that Carrie Goretzka’s mother-in-law attempted to help Goretzka, but was herself burned in the process, and had to wait for 20 minutes for the arrival of power crews to cut off the power.

All the while, Goretzka suffered in front of her two young daughters, the record showed.

A state judge must still approve of the $105 million settlement, which was announced recently by Shanin Specter, an attorney with the Philadelphia firm Kline and Specter, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.

The Associated Press quoted Specter as saying that the settlement amount is $4 million less than the jury verdict because “we had to give West Penn a little bit of an incentive to resolve the case, but just a little bit.”

Specter, the son of the late longtime Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, further told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the settlement announcement is a “ringing endorsement of the jury’s verdict in this case.

“This is West Penn Power saying the jury got it right, and that is a very important statement that the civil justice system can work,” Specter told the newspaper.

The record shows that the hefty jury verdict following December’s trial had consisted of $48 million in compensatory damages and $61 million in punitive damages.

In an article written for the website of The Beasley Firm, a Philadelphia-based plaintiffs’ firm, attorney Max Kennerly noted how extremely rare the granting of punitive damages is in Pennsylvania’s civil justice system, and the fact that there were $61 million in punitive damages granted in this case says something about the severity of the case.

“Punitive damages are one of the great bogeymen of tort reformers, who repeatedly point to verdicts like this and then claim that they are commonplace and destroying American business,” Kennerly wrote in his piece. “Nothing could be further from the truth: punitive damages are barely even presented to the jury, even more rarely reported, even more rarely sustained on appeal, and even more rarely actually collected against the defendants.”

In this case, Kennerly noted, the punitive damages figure was reached through what the attorney calls a “surprisingly generous calculation: the jurors took one quarter of the company’s retained earnings after dividends and expenses, and awarded that.”

Kennerly went on to note that while most of his cases don’t even involve punitive damages, in those that do, the verdicts don’t necessarily translate into “actual money paid.”

He noted that following a wrongful death case he worked on in Philadelphia a few years back, one that involved $15 million in punitive damages, “when all was said and done, after all of the appeals and bankruptcies, we collected not one penny of those punitive damages, and the defendant is still out there, doing business as usual, hurting people just the same.”

In the case of Goretzka v. West Penn Power Co., the gruesome details of the mother’s death clearly got to the jury.

In a January 2012 letter to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Specter, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, notes that Carrie Goretzka was shocked continuously until the power company arrived on scene and shut off the power, about a 20-minute ordeal.

About 7,200 volts coursed through Goretzka’s body at the time.

Pittsburgh media has reported that the settlement with West Penn Power comes a week after the company settled a related enforcement action by the PUC, which included an $86,000 fine and a requirement that the company retrain its workers on the act of splicing power lines and inspecting splices for potential problems.

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