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Pennsylvania wrongful death award tops $100 million

An Allegheny County woman died in 2009 when she was electrocuted in her yard. The 39-year-old mother was struck by a downed power line, which a wrongful death claim said was improperly maintained by West Penn Power Co. Relatives watched helplessly as the victim suffered repeated 7,200-volt electric shocks.

During the recent civil trial, a jury awarded compensatory and punitive damages in the sum of $109 million. The utility company immediately vowed to fight the personal injury ruling. West Penn Power recently chose to abandon further litigation and settle with plaintiffs for $105 million, an agreement that awaits a court's approval.

The jury award stands in the minds of many legal observers as the largest personal injury award in state history. Sixty-one million dollars was awarded during the trial in punitive damages as a punishment and deterrent for the defendant. The jury used the utility company's retained earnings as a barometer to calculate the punitive award.

The plaintiffs were awarded $48 million for the mother's death.

Court documents described the horror family members felt as the stricken woman was jolted by a massive burst of electricity. The victim's mother-in-law and daughters waited 20 agonizing minutes before utility crews turned the power off. The victim's widower testified that he and his wife filed two previous complaints about fallen electrical lines before the fatal accident.

West Penn Power was found negligent in court for failing to clean and splice the dangerous power lines correctly. Poor maintenance created rust buildup, overheating and ultimate power line failure. The federal Public Utilities Commission recently added to the utility company's penalties with an $86,000 fine for training and power line maintenance violations.

Punitive damages are possible in every wrongful death case, although legal experts say Pennsylvania juries rarely award them. Personal injury attorneys agree the punitive award in the Allegheny County case proves the damages are available when egregious negligence is evident.

Source: pennrecord.com, "West Penn Power Co. drops appeal of $109 million wrongful death verdict, largest such award in state history," Jon Campisi, Feb. 21, 2013

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