Line repair recalled in suit over West Hempfield woman's death
A West Penn Power Co. lineman told an Allegheny County jury Tuesday that proper connection repairs made to a downed line should “never fail.” Thomas Jones was one of two linemen who repaired a downed 7,200-volt line outside the home of Carrie and Michael J. Goretzka in 2004 that later failed and fell on top of Carrie Goretzka outside her Hempfield Township home on June 2, 2009.
Goretzka, 39, died three days later at UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.
Jones and Jeffrey Falo, his repair partner on June 23, 2004, were summoned as trial witnesses in a wrongful death case against the utility filed on behalf of her estate.
The accident occurred on a clear, sunny day after one of the connection repairs made in 2004 corroded and failed, according to previous testimony. Attorneys representing the Goretzka family maintain the failure resulted because the line connections in 2004 were not properly cleaned with a wire brush before they were installed.
Chris Havlik, an engineer with Hummell Power Systems Inc., the manufacturer of the splice connection, previously told jurors there was no evidence on the failed splice indicating that the wires had been cleaned before installation.
Although neither Jones nor Falo could recall which worker specifically made the actual splice connection that failed, Jones testified under questioning by family attorney Shanin Specter of Philadelphia that a properly installed connection should “never fail.”
The workers on the 2004 repair job were traced through utility repair records.
Specter extensively questioned Jones and Falo on whether they always followed manufacturer and utility directives to use only a wire brush to clean the wire ends when making repairs.
“There may have been a time we didn't use a wire brush,” Jones said.
He said those extremely rare occasions came about only when a wire brush was not available in a truck. He said that occasionally workers used a knife to clear material from the ends of lines before they were spliced.
Neither witness could recall exact details of repairing the Goretzka line in 2004 because such repairs are routine. Jones testified that he did remember that the downed line damaged some limbs on nearby trees.
Jones, a lineman for more than 28 years, estimated making about 100 such repairs each year.
Specter repeatedly asked Jones whether he was aware of a West Penn directive that notes that failure to use a wire brush to clean off oxides from the strands of wire “will set up overheating and eventual failure of the splice.”
“Sometimes you need to use a little more than a brush,” Jones testified.
Falo, a lineman with the utility for 15 years, maintained he always used a wire brush on the connections.
West Penn Power Co. attorney Avrum Levicoff of Pittsburgh had Jones demonstrate a splice repair before jurors.
“These are routine?” Levicoff asked.
“Yes,” Jones said.
“Has (West Penn) ever brought to your attention a splice failing?” Levicoff asked Jones.
“No,” he replied.
“To your knowledge, have you ever had a splice fail?” Levicoff asked.
“No,” Jones replied.
Specter countered by asking Jones whether the line connection outside the Goretzka home that he and Falo completed on West Hempfield Drive failed in 2009.
“Yes,” Jones said.
“Was this failure brought to your attention by the company?” Specter asked.
“Yes. A day later,” Jones said.
A former trainer for West Penn Power Co.'s former parent company, Allegheny Power, testified that it was once routine to teach utility linemen that proper cleaning of wire connections for splicing could be made using pliers and “skinning knives,” as well as wire brushes.
Robert Schellhaus said that when he trained linemen in the mid-1990s it was not mandatory that crewmen use wire brushes for cleaning the end connections.
Schellhaus said that he still maintains that the connections can be properly cleaned using knives and pliers “if it is done thoroughly.”
Goretzka's estate is seeking unspecified damages against the utility. The trial resumes this morning before Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.