$2,500,000 – Burn Victim v. PECO

Attorneys for a Chester County roofer who suffered severe injuries when a ladder he was carrying struck power lines reached a $2.5 million settlement with PECO Energy for its role in the incident.

Donald Hunt, then 27, of West Goshen, was working outside the Downingtown home of John and Annette Hamilton the afternoon of Dec. 14, 1993, when the 24-foot laddervator (also known as a shingle hoist) came in contact with a 34,000-volt power line situated 21 feet off the ground.

Hunt, who along with two other employees of MacNeill Roofing was re-roofing the Hamiltons’ home, suffered severe burn injuries to both legs, amputations of the toes of his left foot, and the index finger of his right hand, as well as other physical and emotional injuries and ailments.

Coatesville sole practitioner Albert Sardella quickly brought aboard Robert Mongeluzzi and Larry Bendesky of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky to represent Hunt as co-counsel. According to the three attorneys, Mongeluzzi and Bendesky handled the negligence aspect of the case while Sardella dealt with the damages.

Hunt’s attorneys sought damages for wage losses, pain and suffering, scarring and disfigurement, and loss of life’s pleasures. The set-dement with PECO was reached earlier this month after what Mongeluzzi described as helpful mediation sessions with mediator Perry Bechde.

PECO’s attorney, Joseph Donley of Kittredge Donley Elson Fullem & Embick, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The case against PECO’s three co-defendants, the shingle hoist manufacturer, its seller, and the Hamiltons is scheduled for trial July 2 and Mongeluzzi said there has been no attempt to settle by any of those parties.

As for the PECO case, Bendesky said the first legal hurdle the trio had to overcome was trying to change the venue from, more conservative Chester County to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, where PECO is based.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court agreed with PECO’s stance, which was based on the fact that the incident occurred in Chester County. But the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that PECO failed to prove that a trial in the plaintiffs choice of venue would cause the utility’s case any harm. Once the venue dilemma was settled, mediation conferences brought out the crux of the plaintiff’s case: The power lines were too close to the Hamiltons’ home. PECO’s own standards call for lines to be at least nine feet from a residence. The lines in this instance were less than seven feet from the Hamiltons’ home.

The Hamiltons built their home in 1978 on a plot of land where PECO’s lines were already installed and had the right of way. Mongeluzzi said the home was built too close to the power lines and that PECO knew that was the case ever since the company installed power into the home shortly after it was constructed.

“Most importantly, PECO’s own prints, prepared by PECO years before the accident show the Hamilton residence encroaching their right of way,” Mongeluzzi and Bendesky wrote in a mediation memo. “This smoking gun document absolutely and unequivocally proves PECO’s knowledge and notice that their right of way was encroached and their line clearance was compromised.”

According to the memo, when the Hamiltons intended to build an above-ground pool in their yard, a PECO linesman went to the home to measure the location of the pool. He found it on PECO’s right of way but not close enough to the transmission lines to be a problem, totally ignoring the 34,000-volt distribution lines which he did not deal with regularly.

Two engineering experts filed reports saying PECO violated both its own and the National Electrical Safety Code’s clearance requirements. The experts said members of the general public such as Hunt have no real understanding of whether power lines are insulated or not and may believe if lines are placed so close to a residence that they are indeed insulated and therefore safe.

Secondly, they said that PECO’s own employees were uneducated about safe clearances and how they are determined. The only PECO employees possessing such knowledge are high-level corporate engineers who do not go out into the field.

The experts concluded that the accident was caused by the hazardous proximity of PECO’s distribution lines to the Hamilton home. Had PECO taken the necessary steps to educate its own personnel about basic clearance requirements, the accident could have been avoided, they said.

Hunt, now-33, spent four months after the accident in Crozer Chester Medical Center after sustaining severe thermal (heat) and third-degree electrical burns to both hands, arms, and legs. His lawyers say he remains in “constant, agonizing, unrelenting pain.”

He required 13 surgeries including skin grafts and amputations as treatment for his pain and still suffers from bone infections and weakness in his lower body that leaves him unable to stand for long periods or to climb, crouch, or squat. His doctors say he will require more surgical procedures in the future as well as braces for his legs. He has not worked since the incident.

As part of the settlement agreement, Hunt’s insurance company agreed to slice a roughly $900,000 lien to $100,000 as long as he does not make any future claims. Hunt’s past and future medical expenses range from between $2.9 million to $3.8 million, Sardella estimated.

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