West Penn Power appeals $109 million damage verdict in electrocution
West Penn Power Co. has asked a judge to set aside the record $109 million in damages an Allegheny County jury awarded on Dec. 6 to the family of a Hempfield woman who was electrocuted by a downed power line.
In its 21-page appeal, utility company attorneys allege trial Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia permitted Shanin Specter, the attorney for the heirs of Carrie Goretzka, to make unchallenged statements in his closing argument that “appealed to the passions and prejudices of the jury rather than the evidence actually presented at trial.”
The verdict was the highest damage award by a jury in county history.
Carrie Goretzka, 39, died of burn injuries three days after the accident on June 2, 2009, outside 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. The Goretzkas' daughters, who were 2 and 4 years old at the time of the incident, and Joann saw Carrie burning beneath the 7,200-volt line.
West Penn Power's attorney, Avrum Levicoff, objects in the appeal to Specter telling jurors that “There are so many outrages here ... there are just so many, it's hard for me to categorize them all.
“Let's start with this: This case never should have been tried. How can they, with a straight face for three and a half weeks, come in here and contest their responsibility for the death of Carrie Goretzka? This is such a moral outrage.” Specter made the statement as part of his closing.
Levicoff maintains in the appeal that the criticism of West Penn's constitutional right to defend itself “was beyond the pale and appealed to the passions and prejudices of the jury.”
Levicoff argues that permitting jurors to view three “gruesome” photographs of Carrie Goretzka's injuries “far exceeded any probative value, thereby prejudicing West Penn.”
Levicoff asked Della Vecchia to throw out the damage award, grant a new trial or reduce the amount of damages.
In a separate matter, the Goretzka family last week asked Della Vecchia to award them interest from the date the lawsuit was filed, which would increase the total damage award to more than $120 million. After listening to evidence presented at the trial, Della Vecchia permitted jurors to add punitive damages against the utility, which is owned by FirstEnergy of Akron, Ohio.
Specter said on Monday that he was not surprised that the utility chose to appeal the verdict.
“It is typical for the losing side in a trial to appeal. West Penn's arguments for a new trial are not meritorious,” Specter said.
Specter took issue with Levicoff's claims in the appeal regarding the Goretzkas' arguments that the utility should have used infrared cameras to detect problems with potential overheated lines.
“Most disturbingly, they've still apparently done nothing to fix their power lines, which are a pressing public safety issue,” Specter said.
Jurors awarded the Goretzkas $48 million in compensatory damages and $61 million in punitive damages after deliberating for slightly more than 90 minutes.
In the appeal, Levicoff describes the compensatory and punitive damage award amounts as “excessive,” but takes special issue at the punitive amount.
“In fact, the award of $61 million in punitive damages amounts to the confiscation of a substantial part of West Penn's net worth. Because the defendant is a public utility, the excessive award, or any award for punitive damages, to a private litigant runs afoul of the Public Utility Code and the Public Utility Commission's charge of balancing the needs of consumers to ensure safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates,” Levicoff wrote.
Jurors were told during the trial that West Penn Power had $244 million in net assets at the end of the fourth quarter in 2011.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Court lets stand ruling for Beaver County widow whose house was auctioned over $6.30 late fee
- Plum High School teacher held for court on charges of intimidation
- Westmoreland park police probe report of man who grabbed woman from Twin Lakes trail
- Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Fattah indicted in racketeering case
- USW workers to march on ATI headquarters
- Rossi: ‘Hockey guy’ Sutter will be missed
- Kang’s 9th-inning home run gives Pirates wild victory over Twins
- School credit ratings a problem for several in Western Pennsylvania
- Steelers’ Wheaton adjusting his game moving to slot receiver
- Driver accused of crashing head-on into Ligonier officer’s SUV waives right to preliminary hearing
- Thief’s attorney blames Rivers Casino; judge isn’t swayed