Welcome back. We are currently discussing the high-profile wrongful death case that was filed against the power conglomerate FirstEnergy after an Irwin, Pennsylvania, wife and mother was killed by a downed power line in her back yard in 2009.
As the wrongful death lawsuit progressed in court, it became clear to almost everyone — even critics of personal injury — that the power company was to blame for the woman’s death. One of the main reasons was that the same power line had fallen twice before and the power company had done little to nothing to determine what the problem was.
In December, the jury agreed, and it only took 90 minutes of deliberation for them reach their verdict. They awarded the woman’s family $109 million in compensation, which appears to be the biggest damage award in a personal-injury case in Pennsylvania history.
About $48 million of the award was compensation for the family’s loss and the victim’s pain. The remaining $61 million of the damage award was considered punitive damages, which are damages awarded in excess of the actual monetary damage caused by the accident. Typically, punitive damages are meant to punish willfully negligent behavior and discourage it from happening again.
To arrive at this $61 million sum, the jurors said they took 25 percent of the power company’s retained earnings after dividends and other expenses were taken out. Essentially, under Pennsylvania law there are no real limits when it comes to punitive damages, so they can be as high as a jury sees fit. However, extremely high awards are often overturned on appeal.
Last week, the power company asked the judge presiding over the case to overturn the verdict, for what it calls “inflamed rhetoric of plaintiffs’ counsel.” Only time will tell whether the judge will agree.
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, “$109 million personal-injury award in Western Pennsylvania offers insight into tort system,” Chris Mondics, Feb. 5, 2013