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Jordan Lebovitz along with co-counsel John Power and Thomas Printable of Cogan & Power, PC, tried a two weeklong wrongful death case which resulted in a $6 million jury verdict in Washington County, Ohio. The case, The Estate of Elsa Thompson v. Ohio Power (AEP), stemmed from the death of Mrs. Thompson, an 85-year-old woman whose house burned down after a tree limb fell on the power line to her home after a thunderstorm. The primary issue in the case was whether the power company, AEP, was responsible for Mrs. Thompson’s death for its failure to respond to reports of the downed power line in a timely fashion in compliance with industry standard and its own internal policies.
On the afternoon of May 25, 2019, a pop-up thunderstorm passed through Marietta, Ohio. During the storm, a tree limb from a large oak tree in Mrs. Thompson’s backyard was caused to fall onto the electric service drop which provided power to her home. Although the power line remained attached to the home and the home-maintained power, the weight of the tree limb had pulled the weather head, to which the line was attached, down and away from the home. Soon after the storm, some of Mrs. Thompson’s neighbors saw the large tree limb hanging on the line and called the condition in to the power company, AEP, at approximately 1:52 p.m. warning them that the line was now hanging at most six feet off the ground and could get worse.
After being alerted to the condition later that afternoon, Mrs. Thompson placed a second call to AEP at approximately 4:51 p.m. During that call, she was informed by the customer service operator that a repair ticket had been made in their system and that a line mechanic had been dispatched at 1:58 p.m. to take care of the matter. However, at approximately 7:45 p.m., five hours after a line mechanic had supposedly been sent out to her home to fix the problem, Mrs. Thompson placed another call to the Defendant. In that call, Mrs. Thompson informed Defendant that no one had been out to her home to correct the dangerous condition, however, once again she was assured by the AEP’s customer service operator that the matter was being taken care of. Most importantly, she was assured that it was safe for her to not remain in her home until it was, but that it was safe for her to go sleep.
Tragically, based on the Defendant’s assurances Mrs. Thompson went to bed that night. However, the Defendant had not taken care of the problem. As a result of the neutral line being compromised by the weight of the tree limb hanging on the live secondary line for nearly twelve-hours, an open neutral condition occurred causing a fire in Mrs. Thompson’s home at just after 11:00 p.m. that night. When firefighters arrived, they found the house engulfed in flames. Rushing into the inferno, Mrs. Thompson’s body was discovered on the second floor laying in a doorway near her bedroom. The firefighters removed Mrs. Thompson from the blaze and quickly rushed her to the hospital. However, despite their valiant efforts, Mrs. Thompson was pronounced dead at the hospital because of smoke inhalation as she attempted to escape the fire.
There was no dispute that the neighbor’s 1:52 p.m. report of a downed power line was appropriately documented by Defendant’s customer service agents and was relayed promptly to a servicer in the field through Defendant’s dispatch system. Additionally, there was no dispute that Defendant AEP had a written policy or “Hazard Call Procedure” for prioritizing customer problem reports like this one. Under this policy, when calls came in, they would be automatically assigned a priority ranking based on the information provided, determining the order in which trouble tickets were to be responded to. Defendant had created this policy at the instruction of the Ohio Public Utilities Commission many years early after several instances where AEP had taken over 12 hours to respond to customer calls for hazardous conditions. Consistent with industry standards, under AEP’s written policy, calls for service where hazards were reported were required to take precedence over lower priority tickets like those where customers had merely lost power without reporting any associated hazard.
Thus, according to AEP’s own written policies (as well as the industry standards with which they align), the problem reported at Elsa Thompson’s home, which was an undisputed Priority 2 hazard involving a downed service drop, should have been responded to promptly, before any power outage calls that were not accompanied by reported hazard conditions. Despite this, AEP’s servicer in the field, who received notice of the downed wire at the Thompson home within minutes of when he first got into his service truck at around 1:39 p.m. on May 25, 2019, went to several lower-priority and later-reported trouble calls, and even took a meal break at the nearby IHOP, before finally getting to Elsa Thompson’s home to address the problem. By then, it was after midnight. More than 10 hours after the downed service drop had first been reported to AEP. Furthermore, by the time he finally arrived, the house was engulfed in flames, and Elsa Thompson, who had gone to bed after twice calling AEP and being assured it was safe to do so, had already been pronounced dead at Marietta Memorial Hospital.
The evidence was clear that whether through a failure of training or a breach of oversight, AEP’s servicers and dispatchers did not comply with these policies. In fact, according to the testimony of the line servicer assigned to respond to Mrs. Thompson’s home, AEP had never even trained him on the priority system, and he was unaware that he was required to respond to priority hazard calls, like Mrs. Thompson’s, before lower priority calls. In fact, AEP provided him with such little training that it wasn’t until a year after Mrs. Thompson’s tragic death that Vandergrift learned that the Defendant even had a priority system or a “Hazard Call Procedure.” Thus, on May 25, 2019, Vandergrift did not know the importance of a priority one or two call or how crucial it was that he respond immediately.
Furthermore, despite being able to track their servicer’s progress and having received an alarm notifying them that the hazard ticket had not been addressed within the four-hour window it had been assigned, AEP’s dispatcher never followed up with the servicer to see why he had responded to several lower priority calls instead of the Thompson priority 2 hazard call. The resulting delay, in turn, meant that a dangerous electrical condition went unaddressed for nearly twelve hours, with the weight of the tree limb eventually resulting in an open neutral condition and ultimately causing the catastrophic fire and Mrs. Thompson’s death.
During trial, Plaintiff put on evidence as to the cause of the fire, AEP’s breach of their own internal policies as well as industry standards, and the immense damages suffered by Mrs. Thompson’s estate. After a two-week long trial, the jury ultimately returned a verdict in favor of Mrs. Thompson’s estate, awarding $6,000,000.00.
Cleveland Jewish News https://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/features/special_sections/legal_affairs/woman-s-family-wins-5-4m-with-help-of-nurenberg-paris-lebovitz/article_5734f3ce-c017-11ec-9b4b-ff1b96b45a7e.html