Power Company Liable for $109 Million in Wrongful Death Suit

A jury awarded the family of a woman electrocuted by a downed power line $109 million dollars in a wrongful death suit against a power company. The jury decided that West Penn Power Co. of Allegheny Energy, Inc., was liable for the 2009 death of Carrie Goretzka, a 39-year-old mother of two. In the case of Goretzka v. Allegheny Energy, Inc., the plaintiffs alleged that the power company failed to clean power lines before they were spliced, failed to adequately repair power lines after earlier complaints of dropped lines, and failed to shut off power to the downed lines for more than twenty minutes while the victim was electrocuted. According to wrongful death attorneys for the family, Michael Goretzka, the husband of the victim, had twice contacted the power company in 2003 and 2004 after power lines dropped into his back yard.  He told the company that he "feared for his family's life." Then in 2009, Carrie Goretzka went outside to call 911 after an overheated power line set fire to the trees in their back yard and cut off power to their house. As she was dialing, the overheated line snapped and fell on her.  Her mother-in-law and two young daughters witnessed the accident but sustained burns while attempting to help.  Goretzka was shocked for 20 minutes and caught on fire while waiting for crews to shut off the power to the downed line.  She died in a hospital three days after the accident. An attorney for the power company denied his client's liability, saying that the victim placed herself in harm's way by going outside to call emergency services.  However, the jury found that "an epidemic of failures" by the utility company led to the woman's death.  One juror said that the fact that power lines dropped in the family's yard twice before was significant in demonstrating the company's negligence.  Furthermore, just two months before a power line fell in the family's yard in 2004, a power company employee wrote, ""The majority of our automatic splice failures have been attributed to poor conductor preparation and improper splice installation."  However, the company never repaired the problem which led to multiple incidents in the Goretzkas' yard and ultimately to Carrie Goretzka's death. The total award included $61 million in punitive damages and $48 million in compensatory damages.  Compensatory damages were as follows:

  • $10 million for wrongful death
  • $29 million for Carrie Goretzka's pain and suffering and lost earnings over her lifetime
  • $1 million to Joann Goretzka, who witnessed the accident and was burned attempting to save her daughter-in-law
  • $4 million each to Carrie Goretzka's two daughters, who only 2 and 4 years old when they witnessed the accident.
The damage award reflects the jury's opinion that the company demonstrated gross negligence. It represents nearly half of the company's $244 million net worth. If a company's negligence causes harm, the injured victims or surviving dependents have the right to pursue financial compensation to hold the company accountable for its actions.

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