HARRISBURG — The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority has been granted a new trial in a case involving an employee who claims that he suffered injuries after receiving an electrical shock by a railcar, according to a decision filed on April 5 in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
The appeal was heard by judges Robert Simpson, Anne E. Covey and Christine Fizzano Cannon, who issued the decision.
The appellate judges affirmed the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas’ decision to grant a new trial. Cannon wrote in the opinion that the lower court’s judge didn’t abuse his discretion by striking the testimony of an expert witness and that the request for a new trial “was not manifestly unreasonable.”
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by Steven Ashby, an assistant conductor who received an electrical shock in 2012 as a SEPTA car approached a station in Philadelphia. He allegedly was holding a metallic grab iron attached to the wall and “observed an abnormally bright and long-lasting blue spark illuminate the sky above where he was standing,” according the appellate court’s decision. Ashby claims that he felt a jolt of electricity surge into his hand, which allegedly caused him to sustain injuries.
SEPTA inspected the railcar and didn’t find any defects, according to the appellate court's decision.
Ashby, however, filed suit.
During the trial, Ashby presented the expert testimony of George Widas, a registered engineer and certified safety professional who attributed Ashby’s injury to “spillover electricity.” In his report, Widas stated “that the hazardous and unsafe condition resulting from Ashby’s injury could have been mitigated or eliminated by proper inspection and maintenance.” For example, SEPTA could have wrapped the grab irons with insulation.
However, Widas didn’t testify that Ashby’s injuries resulted from a failure to insulate grab irons. He instead accused SEPTA of failing to ensure that the rubber baffles between the cars were properly spaced, which he never mentioned in the report. When asked about the concept of “spillover electricity,” he admitted to making up the term.
SEPTA moved to strike Widas’ testimony in its entirety, and the trial court granted the motion. But when the jury returned a verdict in favor of Ashby and awarded him $500,000 in damages, SEPTA requested a new trial, which was granted.
Ashby appealed the decision to grant a new trial, arguing that the trial court improperly struck Widas’ testimony and erred in granting SEPTA’s motion for a new trial. The appellate judges, however, disagreed.
“[G]iven the nature of the claims, Widas’ testimony, the dearth of other evidence of defect and/or negligence and the jury’s verdict in this matter, it would be reasonable to conclude that the jury considered the stricken Widas testimony in reaching its verdict… and that SEPTA suffered prejudice as a result,” Fizzano Cannon wrote in the decision. “Consequently, the trial court’s [decision to] grant... a new trial was not manifestly unreasonable, nor did it misapply the law or result from partiality, prejudice, bias or ill will.