When Carrie Goretzka's two young girls ran out onto the porch of their suburban home in the afternoon of June 2, 2009, what they saw was a scene of unrelenting horror. "Mommy, Mommy," yelled the oldest child, 4-year-old Chloe. "Mommy is on fire. Mommy is on fire." Moments earlier, Carrie Goretzka had stepped outside her home in Irwin, Pa., to call the power company to report an outage and downed line on her property. She either stumbled into the line or it fell on top of her — no one knows for sure.
What is certain is that 7,200 volts coursed through Goretzka's body for 20 minutes before a utility crew turned off the current. Now, Goretzka's death has become the focus of high-stakes personal injury litigation between a team of personal injury lawyers and the West Penn Power Co., a subsidiary of
In December, an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court jury in Pittsburgh awarded the Goretzka family $109 million in compensation for Mrs. Goretzka's personal injuries and death, the largest award in a personal injury case in Pennsylvania history.
On Friday, West Penn Power asked the judge in the case to overturn the verdict, citing what it said were numerous legal and evidentiary errors, including "inflamed rhetoric of plaintiffs' counsel." The case has drawn the attention of personal injury litigation experts, not only because of the size of the verdict, but also because the trial record provides a detailed glimpse into the workings of the tort system in high-stakes personal injury disputes.
Moreover, the Plaintiffs' personal injury attorneys and the jurors have spoken in unusually blunt terms about the personal injury litigation.
Nearly four weeks into the personal injury trial and one day before the case went to the jury, the company and the plaintiffs' injury attorneys agreed to settle the lawsuit for $50 million and a commitment from the utility to fix improperly installed wire splices along 26,000 miles of its system. The company apparently backed out of the deal the next day.
Plaintiffs' injury attorneys asserted at trial that West Penn customers had been plagued by an epidemic of downed wires because its workers had employed improper and easily remedied splicing techniques. "It's a pretty simple case," stated the Plaintiffs' personal injury attorneys. "A power line fell on a clear day and killed a beautiful woman in front of her kids and her mother-in-law. It is as clear a case of liability as there could be."
Virtually no one but the company disputes the family's claim that West Penn is responsible for Goretzka's death. The power line that killed her had collapsed in the Goretzka family's yard twice before, yet the Plaintiffs' personal injury attorneys introduced evidence that no serious attempt was made to find out why the line failed. Even longtime critics of the plaintiffs and personal injury attorney bar, such as the American Tort Reform Association, said the company appeared to be to blame for Goretzka's death.
The case has raised important questions about how juries, once they establish liability in personal injury cases, mete out punishment. Juries in personal injury cases have no real guidelines on punitive damages, and, strictly speaking, the sky is the limit. Such awards can, however, be reduced or overturned on appeal. However, many Plaintiff's attorneys, including the Charleston Personal Injury Lawyers at Anderson & Schuster, Attorneys at Law, contend that high awards in civil cases serve as a powerful check on reckless conduct.