West Penn Power urges jurors to act on science, not emotion, in determining verdict in electrocution suit
By Paul Peirce
Published: Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
The attorney for West Penn Power Co. pleaded with an Allegheny County jury Wednesday to focus on scientific evidence rather than emotion when determining its verdict in the 2009 electrocution death of a Hempfield woman.
Avrum Levicoff of Pittsburgh, who represents the utility company in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the heirs of Carrie Goretzka, 39, told jurors during his closing argument that evidence presented during the trial does not prove that negligence by West Penn Power Co. or its employees caused the June 2, 2009, accident outside the victim's West Hempfield Drive residence.
Jurors only heard West Penn's closing argument yesterday. Attorney Shanin Specter of Philadelphia will deliver closing statements on Thursday on behalf of Michael Goretzka, Carrie's husband; their two young daughter's, Chloe, 8, and Carlie, 6; and Michael's mother, Joann, who saw the 7,200-volt line fall onto the victim.
Carrie Goretzka died in UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh of burn injuries three days after the accident.
Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Thursday afternoon. The family is seeking unspecified damages against the utility.
“With all the sympathies and compassion to the Goretzka family this case has brought about, you've got to keep focused on the evidence,” Levicoff said.
“The guts of their case is that a splice made on the line five years earlier failed because our lineman did not wire-brush when it was installed,” Levicoff said.
He asked jurors to recall testimony from the company's expert witness, Elizabeth metallurgist Joseph Turek, who took microscopic photographs of pieces of the downed splice that indicated some of the wire connections may have been wire-brushed.
Levicoff urged jurors to disregard testimony from the Goretzkas' own expert witness, Christopher Havlik, an engineer with Hubbell Power Systems, the splice manufacturer, who testified the failed connection pieces showed no evidence of wire-brushing. Havlik testified that each splice carries a warning on the package stating that failure to properly brush the connections prior to installation could cause them to overheat, corrode and fail.
“Their experts claim they couldn't see it with the naked eye. They never even bothered to look at it, even with a 25-cent magnifying glass,” Levicoff said.
Levicoff suggested to jurors that the splice manufacturers “don't care what the evidence is. They always say the linemen didn't clean the conductor.”
He claimed manufacturers often make such claims “with no basis for their remarks” to divert attention from their products.
Levicoff noted that similar accidents involving splice connections on lines are extremely rare.
He noted there was testimony that “millions” of such splice connections exist on power lines across North America.
“Don't you think there would be multiple numbers of failures everywhere if crewmen just decided some afternoon not to wire-brush? Both of our crewmen came in here and testified that that's how they were trained and knew you were supposed to wire-brush,” Levicoff said.
“But they also truthfully told you that they couldn't remember that many years ago when the line was installed in 2004 whether they did (wire-brush). But they did say that they did carry a wire brush in the bucket of their truck,” Levicoff said.
On Tuesday, Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia ruled that in addition to considering potential damages for negligence, jurors will be permitted to consider punitive damages against the utility.
“You've got to present overriding evidence for punishment damages. The evidence presented in this case is not precise enough to impose a punishment verdict,” Levicoff said.
During the trial, Specter presented evidence that the line fell on Carrie Goretzka when she went outside into her side yard to call authorities about a power outage. Company records indicate that Michael Goretzka made repeated telephone calls and emailed the utility inquiring why the same 7,200-volt power line failed in 2003 and 2004.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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