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Husband of woman killed by power line says $109M award not the point

Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

The dollar amount was not what mattered most to Michael Goretzka, even as an Allegheny County jury awarded his family a record $109 million verdict against West Penn Power Co. late Thursday.

What mattered was the finding that the utility was negligent in its maintenance of a live power line that fell on and electrocuted his wife, Carrie, in front of her two young children in 2009 outside their Hempfield home.

“I wanted to hear a verdict. I wanted to hear that they were negligent for Carrie, for myself, for my family. This was a fight for Carrie,” Goretzka said on Friday.

After a three week trial, jurors awarded Goretzka $48 million in compensatory damages and $61 million in punitive damages.

Common Pleas Judge Michael A. Della Vecchia said the amount likely is the highest ever awarded in Western Pennsylvania.

Throughout the trial, attorneys attempted to negotiate a settlement. Goretzka said he was not interested.

“We felt we got justice for Carrie. It was a fight for the last 3 12 years. She was heard, and the verdict spoke volumes,” Goretzka said.

Goretzka still lives in the same West Hempfield Drive home with his daughters, Chloe, 8, and Carlie, 6, where his 39-year-old wife was engulfed by flames when a 7,200-volt electrical line fell to the ground on June 2, 2009.

Carrie Goretzka died three days later from her injuries. She had been burned on 85 percent of her body.

Michael Goretzka said the family will soon move.

“It's been very difficult. Home has been a reminder of happy times. I couldn't take the kids away from that,” Goretzka said.

During the trial, he had to relive — through his mother's testimony — the horrifying pain suffered by his wife.

Joann Goretzka, 69, of Elizabeth testified that her daughter-in-law went outside to call emergency crews to report a power outage.

Next thing she knew, Carrie Goretzka was on the ground, engulfed in flames.

“I took two steps on the grass, and I was thrown back myself by the electricity,” Joann Goretzka testified. “The next thing I remember is looking back and seeing the two girls had come out on the porch, and they were screaming for someone to help their mother.”

Michael Goretzka, through family attorney Shanin Spector, argued that the power company was negligent in how it maintained the line, which had reportedly fallen twice before: in 2003 and 2008.

Company lawyers and witnesses insisted the evidence showed the power line was properly cared for.

West Penn is mulling its options in the wake of the verdict.

“It's going to take several days to review the verdict to determine if an appeal of any or part of the verdict is warranted,” West Penn spokesman Scott Surgeoner said on Friday.

Meanwhile, the company faces a potential penalty from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Commission investigators filed a complaint against the power company in May for allegedly failing to maintain an adequate, efficient and safe service.

The commission contends the line failed because the company did not have it properly connected and that its employees were inadequately trained.

Investigators are asking the PUC to impose a minimum fine of $86,000.

“It's working its way through the process,” said PUC spokeswoman Denise McCracken.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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