Closing arguments today in electrocution of wife, mom
An Allegheny County jury will hear closing arguments Wednesday morning in the wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of Carrie Goretzka, who died in 2009 after a 7,200-volt West Penn Power Co. line fell on her.
Jurors are being asked by the family to determine whether West Penn was negligent in the installation and maintenance of the power line outside their West Hempfield Drive home in Hempfield Township. Jurors will deliberate on whether to award damages to the family.
The heirs of Goretzka, 39, including her husband, Michael, and two daughters, Chloe, 8, and Carlie, 6, won a preliminary victory against the utility Tuesday afternoon.
Without the jury present, Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia declined a request from West Penn's attorney, Avrum Levicoff, to bar jurors from potentially awarding punitive damages in addition to considering damages for negligence.
Under Pennsylvania law, punitive damages can be awarded only when the defendant deliberately proceeds to act or fails to act in conscious disregard of, or indifference to, a high degree of risk of physical harm to another of which the actor knows or has reason to know.
Levicoff argued that evidence presented during the 12-day trial did not meet the “strict” criteria for a jury to consider punitive damages against the utility. He maintains there was no evidence at trial that the utility “consciously disregarded” upkeep of the line or that its employees knew its condition presented “a high probability” of public risk.
The Goretzkas' attorney, Shanin Specter of Philadelphia, countered that testimony from West Penn employees during the trial showed Michael Goretzka contacted the company numerous times via telephone and in an email in 2004 with concerns seeking explanation after the same line fell in his backyard on Jan. 3, 2003 and again on June 23, 2004, when it burned the lawn and trees.
Della Vecchia said he would leave the matter up to jurors. He noted Michael Goretzka put the company “on notice in 2004 because he was concerned over the well-being of his family.”
“That alone is enough to cause some concern,” the judge said. “I'm going to let the jury decide the issue.”
Jurors heard Specter sometimes tersely cross-examine one of West Penn's expert witnesses, metallurgist Joseph Turek of Elizabeth.
Turek had testified that connections on the failed line outside the Goretzka home showed signs under microscopic examination that it had been wire-brushed in preparation for installation in 2004. The Goretzkas have presented numerous experts who maintain the failed line connection showed no signs of wire-brushing to remove oxides.
The splice manufacturer maintains that failure to remove oxides at the line connections can cause it to overheat, corrode and eventually fail.
Specter repeatedly questioned Turek about a September report on the accident in which he claims that the line failed because wind vibrations over five years eventually caused the splice connection teeth grips to “seat and reseat” on the line, eventually causing it to arc and fail.
“Is there some freakish meteorological occurrence ... like a wind tunnel going on in Irwin, Pa., or that section of West Hempfield?” Specter asked.
Turek noted that wind speeds as low as 15 mph can cause some abnormal occurrences.
Specter extensively questioned Turek's theory that the wire splices perform the same whether they are installed with or without preliminary wire-brushing.
Specter questioned Turek whether the manufacture of the splices, Hummell Power Inc., and West Penn Power's own crewmen manuals, which both recommend wire-brushing connections prior to installation, should remove the language from the splice packaging and manuals.
“I'm just reporting the results of my testing,” Turek said.
The Goretzkas are seeking unspecified civil damages against the utility for negligence.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.