Allegheny County jury awards record $109 million to family of electrocuted Hempfield woman
An Allegheny County jury on Thursday gave the largest award in county history — $109 million, including $61 million in punitive damages — to the family of a Hempfield woman who was electrocuted by a downed West Penn Power Co. line in view of her young daughters.
Common Pleas Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia said the amount likely is the highest ever awarded in Western Pennsylvania.
Carrie Goretzka, 39, died of burn injuries three days after the accident on June 2, 2009, at the family's West Hempfield Drive home.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Michael Goretzka, 43, Carrie's husband; their two daughters, Chloe, 8, and Carlie, 6; and Michael's mother, Joann, 69, who saw the 7,200-volt line fall.
The jury deliberated only 90 minutes before returning the unanimous verdict despite mountains of evidence during the two-week trial, including multiple pieces of the downed wire, testimony from metallurgists and utility company logs, books and interoffice memos.
During their deliberations, jurors asked to see three photographs taken during Carrie Goretzka's autopsy.
“There was a lot of evidence to review during the trial, but once we got back there, we spent a lot of time talking and laying out the evidence,” juror Tina Wojton of Pittsburgh said after the jury was dismissed.
“It was nice to know that everyone was pretty much in agreement,” she said.
Wojton said the jurors hope the $61 million in punitive damages sends a message to utility companies to be more careful.
“None of us ever want to see something terrible like this ever happen again,” she said.
Michael Goretzka hugged his attorney, Shanin Specter of Philadelphia, and wiped tears from his eyes as the verdict and penalty damages were read. As the jurors left the courtroom, Goretzka and his mother embraced and shook hands with each one.
He declined comment as he left the courthouse with his attorney.
Specter said utility companies have to be more careful in safeguarding the public.
“It's terrible that we can't bring back Carrie, but this jury honored her memory” with the verdict, he said.
“This is a clear message to West Penn Power that they have a serious public safety issue with their power lines falling. I hope they take immediate remedial action,” Specter said.
Joann Goretzka said, “We're excited, we're overwhelmed, and that's about all I can say right now,”
Carol Rizzo, Michael Goretzka's sister, who has helped to care for the Goretzkas' daughters since their mother's death, was in the courtroom when the verdict was read.
“We were just hoping that they would do the right thing so that this will never, ever happen again,” she said. “It won't bring back Chloe and Carlie's mother, but we don't want to ever see anybody have to go through what our family has gone through.”
West Penn Power attorney Avrum Levicoff of Pittsburgh declined to comment on whether the company will appeal.
Jurors were told that West Penn Power had $244 million in assets at the end of 2011. The family's lawsuit had sought unspecified damages.
In his closing arguments on Wednesday, Levicoff asked the jury to focus on scientific evidence rather than emotion when determining its verdict. He said evidence presented during the trial did not prove negligence by West Penn Power Co. or its employees.
Civil trial experts said the verdict likely doesn't end the litigation.
Latrobe attorney Ned Nakles said the family could receive less than the amount awarded.
“In all likelihood, one of two things will happen. The defendant will appeal and/or there will be a series of settlement negotiations that now take into account the verdict that has happened,” Nakles said. “I would not be surprised to see the parties engaged in some meaningful negotiations.”
Steven Baicker-McKee, who teaches civil procedure at Duquesne University's law school, said West Penn may have wanted to settle but made an offer too low for the family to accept.
“Maybe the negotiating demands were $120 million or $5 million,” he said. “(Attorneys) may have made an error in judgment. You also have to look at what the settlement negotiations had been to date.”
Sympathy is a factor, Baicker-McKee said.
“You always, as a trial lawyer, are concerned whether sympathy, which is overwhelming, outweighs factual arguments,” he said. “They may have had the law on their side. They have had expert testimony on their side. But that doesn't outweigh sympathy.”
Appeals courts are reluctant to overturn a jury decision unless it is based on an error of law, he said.
“Once the case is lost at trial, you face an uphill battle,” Baicker-McKee said.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Rich Cholodofsky and Richard Gazarik contributed to this report.