A state supreme court has weighed in on whether punitive damages awarded by a jury to a paralyzed worker were too large.
The $18 million in punitive damages make up almost half of the amount awarded to Andrew Blood, an electric company lineman.
Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled that the amount isn’t “grossly excessive.”
Blood worked for Xcel Energy, an electricity provider.
On June 29, 2004, Blood was working toward removing an electric pole. He was about 25 feet up the pole taking down wooden cross-arms when the pole broke six inches below the ground.
Blood’s fall fractured his spine and immediately paralyzed the worker, who was 24 at the time.
In 1960, Xcel entered a contract with Qwest to share Qwest’s telephone poles.
Blood sued Qwest, and a jury awarded him a total of $39.65 million. The $21.65 million for compensatory damages was broken out this way:
- $10 million for physical impairment and disfigurement
- $750,000 for loss of consortium
- $1 million in non-economic damages, and
- $9.9 million in economic damages.
The question of whether the punitive damages were warranted centered around Qwest’s failure to implement a pole inspection program.
The contract between Qwest and Xcel mentioned recommended inspections for their utility polls based on their age. A first inspection was to be conducted 24 years after a poll is installed, with additional inspections every 12 years after that.
The court said Qwest showed no evidence that it had ever inspected the pole Blood was on. It had been in service for 46 years.
Qwest said it relied on pre-climb inspections by linemen to detect internal rot.
In this case, Blood has visually inspected the pole and struck it several times with a heavy hammer to detect internal rot. He believed the pole was solid enough to climb, as did other experienced Xcel linemen on the scene.
But the rot that caused the pole to collapse happened underground.
Colorado’s highest court said the jury properly awarded the $18 million in punitive damages to Blood. It said Qwest failure to even start a pole inspection program for 46 years was “willful and wanton” and that the lack of the inspection program was “sufficiently reprehensible” to justify a punitive damage award.
What do you think about the court’s ruling? Should there be a maximum amount for punitive awards, and if so, how should that ceiling be determined? Let us know what you think in the Comments Box below.
(Qwest Services Corp. v. Blood, CO Supreme Court, No 09SC534, 5/23/2011) A PDF of the court’s opinion is available here.