$16,000,000 – Kristie’s Family Get Record-Setting Verdict Against PG&W

Verdict Largest To Date in Luzerne County History

Jury says PG&W negligent in carbon-monoxide death

Wilkes-Barre – A Luzerne county Jury slapped a recorded $15.3 million verdict against Pennsylvania Gas and Water company (PG&W) Friday night.

After hearing four weeks of testimony, the nine woman, three man jury the utility company was totally responsible for the death of a little girl in Forty-Fort four years ago. As a result, the jury said, PG&W must pay not only for causing the child’s death and her families suffering but also for recklessly disregarding the safety of its customers.

Common pleas Judge Carmen P. Podcasy added an additional penalty of more than $1 million of delayed damages against the utility, pushing the total award to the plaintiff over $16.4 million. Jury foreman Thomas Dructor, a maintenance mechanic from Pittston, said the jurors’ decisions were unanimous.

“It took longer to order lunch than to decide the verdict,” he said.

The jury deliberated six hours and forty minutes, however, before setting dollar amounts in each of the verdicts categories.

The lawsuit against PG&W began three years ago, after eight year old Kristie Emershaw died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from a clogged chimney in her grandparents home.

Miss Emershaw’s parents and grandparents sued the gas company because it had inspected and approved the heating system several times never warning them that the chimney was unsafe.

During four weeks of trial, the plaintiffs’ attorneys called some twenty witnesses, including many PG&W representatives who agreed the gas company botched its service to the family.

The biggest portion of the verdict is a $11 million in punitive damages, the category in which the jury can punish PG&W if it regards the companies conduct as outrageous and reckless indifferent to the public safety.

Miss Emershaw’s family called the verdict bitter-sweet.

“It won’t bring my granddaughter back,” said 72 year old Gilbert Howell, emotions choking him as he left Luzerne County courthouse.

Howell owns the home at 1151 Wyoming Avenue, Forty Fort, where the accident occurred April 4th, 1982.

He and his wife, Lillian, were named as plaintiffs suing PG&W and as additional defendants since PG&W had filed a cross claim against them.

But the jury said the Howell’s were not guilty of any negligence and shared no liability in the case.

The jury also cleared another defendant Harry Worke, 45 year old heating contractor from Warrior Run, who installed the Howell’s gas furnace in 1980.

“I’m very happy this is over and I’m very glad they said I was not to blamed,” Worke said, smiling broadly and shaking hands outside court room one.

Miss Emershaw’s father, 39 year old Francis Emershaw of Shavertown, said the family sued PG&W because PG&W needs to be socially more responsible to their customers.

“We also hope we’ve heightened the awareness in the community of floom liners and clean out on chimneys. And I think we have some sense of retribution for the lose of our daughter.”

I guess we’re as pleased as you can be given the tragedy that brought us here today.

Miss Emershaw’s mother, Dianne, a 39 year old Wilkes-Barre woman who in 1982 was also overcome with carbon-monoxide with her daughter, Kristie, and younger son, Brian, said she felt numb Friday night.

“I just hope the verdict brought a message so that no other family in the valley will have to suffer like this,” she said.

The Emershaw’s attorney, Joseph Quinn, of Wilkes-Barre, droned that message into the jury during his closing arguments Thursday.

“This callus indifference will continue until you come in tomorrow and say no more,” Quinn had told the jury.

Quinn said PG&W had made a $650,000 offer to settle the case last fall, but the plaintiffs rejected it.

“I feel very satisfied now,” he said. “There were principles involved that were very important to me, I feel the awards were warranted there is no way you can turn the clock back and undo the tragedy. But we also represented the entire community in this trial and I wanted the jury to send a message to this and others that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior.”

Much of the verdict can be collected through PG&W insurance policies, he said.

Utilities President Jay Glenn Gooch who had listened to arguments in courts did not attend Friday’s session. He could not be reached late Friday night.

PG&W attorney Frank Marshall said he intends to file post trial motions and appeal the case until the verdicts are reversed.
Marshall, in his closing arguments Thursday, admitted PG&W and some of its employees had been negligent but contended the negligence was not a substantial factor in causing the accident.

Quinn said he is confident the verdict will standup on appeal.

“The judge’s instruction was painstaking. Their calculations made sense. I think they did an outstanding job,” he said.

The appeal process will have to be exhausted before the Emershaws and Howells can collect any of their award, and no one could predict Friday night how long that might take.

One of the longest parts of the process, transcribing the trial testimony, is already complete, however since the lawyers have the courts stenographer make daily transcriptions.

Quinn said the case could probably be argued on post trial appeal before Podcasy within a few months.

Until now, the biggest jury award in Luzerne County Court was $12.6 million in December in a personal injury suit. Quinn was also the plaintiffs lawyer in that case.

April 12

Jury sends Utility a $16.4 million message
Staff Writer

Wilkes-Barre – The jury wanted to send Pennsylvania Gas & Water company (PG&W) a weighty message Friday night.

The message read; $16.4 million.

“We wanted to send them a message so that nobody else will die,” the jury William C. View, 47 of Rear 127 Smith Road, Plymouth.
“Oh, I hope we did,” he said.

“We wanted to be fair to both people and the gas company. But we could have made the gas company pay a lot more.”

View said the jury may have been made up of twelve unrelated people – 9 women and 3 men – but it sends the message as a family.

All twelve jurors agreed they wanted to urge PG&W’s board of directors to make the changes to ensure no little girl will ever die again from the companies negligence.

“We kind of all agreed,” said View, a baker. “It was very peaceful. We worked as one.”

View said the jury had no major arguments during it six hours and forty minutes of deliberations Friday.

“PG&W’s lawyers clearly had failed to show it wasn’t to blame for Kristie Emershaw and the harm caused to her family by the companies negligence, he said.

I think PG&W was trying to put the blame on anyone it could,” View said.

“We wanted them to know they couldn’t get away with it.”

The jurors did, however, stall on two points, he said.

They originally had found Gilbert Howell, grandfather of the eight year old Emershaw girl and both a plaintiff and a defendant in the case, negligent and Harry Worke, an independent contractor who installed the Howell’s furnace, free of negligence, View said. Neither defendant owed any financial damages, however.

But late in the deliberations the jurors decided they had made a mistake in those findings and they reversed the attributions of negligence. Still, they found neither man owed any money.

View said by the time the jurors broke their deliberation to have pizza and soda about 7p.m., they had wrapped up almost everything.
They had one question Judge Bernard J. Podcasy, View said. Did they have to give them amounts in punitive to all plaintiffs in the case?

After Podcasy told them they could distribute those damages however they saw fit, it took no more than an hour to tally all their figures, concluding a day long deliberation and a month long trial.

Jury foreman Thomas Dructor, of 133 Union street, Pittston, then methodically read the verdict before Podcasy’s court.
Dructor a maintenance mechanic, refused to comment on the case except to say that the jury had been unanimous in its thinking and verdicts. “We were all together on it,” he said

Several other jurors also refused to comment on their verdicts. Podcasy had advised the jurors Friday morning to avoid making comments to media representatives after delivering the verdicts.

View said the jurors had gotten to know one another surprisingly well and one of the running sources of humor was that Dructor called them by their juror numbers.

He said the were all exhausted and would sleep well Friday night knowing they had down their duty.

“Its been a long four weeks,” View said.

Other jurors were : Mary Burns, registered nurse of 122 Spring Street, Wilkes-Barre; Catherine Callahan, a sewing machine operator 30 Roth Street, Ashley; Dellores Kutney, a sewing machine operator of 343 South Sherman Street, Wilkes- Barre; Eleanor A. Mogofski, factory worker of 30 East First Street, Larksville; Geraldine M. Rossey, a nurse aid of 423 South Empire, Wilkes-Barre; Anthony J. Tarnalicki Jr., a delivery service driver of 33 Rear Berk Street, Plains Township; Rose Murett, a dietary clerk of 36 Water Street, Hanover Township; Teressa M. Buckley, an assembly tester of 339 East South Street, Wilkes-Barre; Iris E. Gibens, retired, of 36 East Bennett Street, Kingston; Annette Lovelle, registered nurse of 520 South Main Street, Jenkins Township.

April 12

By Marita Lowman