I’m Romney Cullers, a partner at The Becker Law Firm. I’d like to introduce a very important client of mine, Gasia Thomas, and tell you a little about the work we did on her behalf that, after nearly four years of work, ended with Gasia receiving the largest individual personal injury settlement in Ohio’s history, $60 million.
Her name is Gasia Thomas. She’s in the lower right-hand corner of the photo below, along with her mom and little sister.
When I first met Gasia’s mother, she was dealing with two nearly impossible challenges:
First, she was trying to help her family heal after a horrifying tragedy.
On November 1, 2012, her 12-year old daughter, Gasia, suffered a profound brain injury and partial amputation from contact with a downed power line in her neighborhood, and it was determined that she would need round-the-clock medical care for the rest of her life. Gasia’s 10-year old sister had minor physical injuries of her own and was trying to cope with the absolute horror of witnessing her big sister combust as a result of contact with the power line.
If that wasn’t enough already, Gasia’s mom was in the middle of preparing to take on the political and economic forces of the power company that owned the fallen electrical line and that had chosen to repeatedly ignore warnings of the threat that the downed line posed.
The Becker Law Firm was glad to take Gasia’s case and I was honored to act as the lead attorney.
In late October 2012, Superstorm Sandy – the largest Atlantic hurricane on record and the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history – cut across 24 states, resulting in the deaths of 233 people. It made landfall in Brigantine, New Jersey on October 29, 2012 with 80 mph winds and made its way to Northeast Ohio – four hundred miles away – with winds reaching 68 mph.
Hundreds of schools were closed, and a quarter of a million people were left without power.
By November 1, 2012, Sandy was dissipating and people were assessing the damage and beginning to make repairs. The weather had let up, and Gasia and her sister were walking near their home in Cleveland, Ohio to board the local church’s bus.
That’s when Gasia touched an energized wire that was hanging above the sidewalk near E. 129th and Iroquois Avenue. The call Gasia’s mom made to 911 was frantic, as was the call made by a neighbor.
Their reactions were understandable: Gasia’s injuries were catastrophic.
Because of the high voltage it was carrying, the power line stuck to Gasia’s body when she came into contact with it. Her heart stopped beating, and as the current flowed out of the wire, through her body, and into the ground, it burned the tissue along its path, leaving extensive damage both on and below the surface of her skin.
On that day, Gasia suffered a traumatic brain injury and would require multiple surgeries, including the partial amputation of her hand.
Who Should Have Prevented Gasia’s Injuries?
After a tragedy, people often ask themselves, “Could this have been prevented?” In a case like Gasia’s, though, a better question to ask is, “Should this have been prevented?”
If so, who was responsible for preventing it, and what went wrong?
Cases like Gasia’s are brought to court specifically to sort through issues of responsibility when someone suffers a catastrophic and life-altering injury.
As a plaintiff’s attorney on a power line contact case, my job is to prove that the power company had a duty to my client that it violated. I must demonstrate exactly whose negligence led to my client being hurt.
Providing Electrical Power Requires a High Standard of Care
Service providers have a duty to take care that they do not harm others while providing their services. How much care service providers need to take – the standard of care – and how to know when a provider has failed to meet that standard depends on the circumstances of each individual case and are ultimately left to a court and jury to decide.
As service providers, power companies have a responsibility to keep the public safe from the dangers that the electricity they distribute can pose. In many states, power companies are required to use the highest technical skill and utmost caution and exercise a degree of care that corresponds with the danger high-voltage electricity poses.
In a case like Gasia’s, my job was to show that the power company failed to meet the appropriate standard of care and that this led to her serious injury.
So, in what ways can power companies fail to meet the standard of care? They may not make their distribution systems safe enough to prevent injuries from occurring, or they may not take sufficient care in how they respond to emergencies that expose the public to the substantial risk of harm.
Searching for Warnings and Failures
In Gasia’s case, trying to find the information we needed to demonstrate how the power company failed to meet the proper standard of care seemed like a daunting task.
There are very few business organizations in this country with the level of influence of a power company. They have the resources of a major corporation combined with the bureaucracy of a government agency. Their records are vast – particularly after a major weather incident – and they often aren’t easy to understand. Our economy and society, as a whole, are absolutely dependent upon them. And they know it.
Power companies have nearly unlimited resources, and they can field an army of attorneys at a moment’s notice. So, when they are sued by someone who was injured, they often try to scare off the plaintiff by making it too expensive for him or her to pursue a case. Hiring expert witnesses, taking depositions, and reviewing evidence can already take a lot of time and money, and having to answer dozens of filings from a power company’s attorneys can drive the costs up even higher.
The power company can afford these tactics, but the family of the person who was hurt usually cannot. The power company and its attorneys think that if they can force the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s lawyers to expend all of their resources early on, the case may never even make it to trial. The result of their actions is to make the price of justice higher than poorer people can pay.
As we began putting Gasia’s case together, we fought back against these tactics in several ways. First, we put our experience to work. Because The Becker Law Firm understands the ins and outs of power line cases and routinely takes on huge companies with unlimited resources, we were able to respond effectively to the power company’s tactics. We didn’t waste time and moved Gasia’s case forward aggressively.
We also made it clear to the opposition that they couldn’t outbid Gasia out of the courtroom. We believed in the Thomas family and demonstrated to our opponents we had the financial resources to commit to the case. We also invested an enormous amount of time and effort into putting Gasia’s case together.
If you must traverse a sea of records and memories to try to find the precise piece of information you need to make your case, it’s important to first have a good idea about what that information might look like. Only an experienced attorney who knows how these cases are put together and what it takes to win them is likely to have this kind of knowledge. Many firms, though, assign detailed tasks to their less-experienced associate attorneys. This approach can be like rolling dice over their client’s future because while associates with little experience might find the pearl of information you’re looking for, it is more likely that they’ll come up emptyhanded.
The Becker Law Firm doesn’t leave full justice for their clients up to chance. Our senior attorneys do the work ourselves. In Gasia’s case, I did the difficult work myself. It’s harder and it takes longer, but it’s what our clients need and I enjoy doing it.
Some of the information we needed from the libraries of records about Gasia’s injury and the power utility’s response to Superstorm Sandy took a long time to find. Other information came easier.
In her 911 call about Gasia’s injury, a neighbor mentioned that she had called 911 before; it turned out, however, that this was an understatement. She and her husband both had previously called to notify the power company that there was a downed power line in their neighborhood within the reach of children. When no one came out to do anything about it, they kept calling, ultimately notifying the company multiple times about the downed power line before Gasia was injured.
We documented that the 911 operators passed the information on to the power company, and showed that the information was mishandled or deleted without any action being taken.
By poring through records and phone calls, we were able to prove that technicians knew of the possibility of this kind injury from a downed line in the Thomas’s neighborhood. We also found a former power utility technician who had noticed the dangerous downed wire and was ignored when he attempted to notify the power company.
One of the most troubling things we found was that four years earlier in 2008, following Hurricane Ike, a 19-year old woman had suffered severe brain injuries and was permanently disabled due to coming into contact with a downed power line in another part of the city under similar circumstances to Gasia’s. With the help of industry experts, we demonstrated that despite this 2008 incident, the power utility did little to bring its procedures up to industry standards. If they had, Gasia’s injuries may have been prevented.
A Sea of Records and Memories
Some of the documentation I personally reviewed on Gasia’s case included:
- Tens of thousands of documents;
- Hundreds of computer-generated compilations of work order data;
- Thousands of audio recordings;
- All the physical evidence of the case;
- Electron microscopy and tensile strength tests of the different types of wires in the electrical distribution system;
- The utility’s public claims and training procedures;
- Hundreds of pages of equipment manuals;
- Technical schematics for utility substations;
- System maps;
- Tree-trimming records dating back to the 1920s, many of them hand-written;
- History of the repairs made to the pole holding the wire that electrocuted Gasia.
I canvassed the Thomas’ neighborhood door-to-door to try to document any memories of repairs to poles, wires, and cross-arms that were rumored to have taken place. Along with our experts, I walked the neighborhood to trace the electrical circuit for the wire that caused Gasia’s injuries and identified clues to help solve the mystery of why the downed power line remained energized for days after it broke and fell.