|$20 million award for severely burned boy stands|
$20 MILLION AWARD FOR INJURY WILL STAND
Published: Saturday, September 18, 1999
© 1999 Landmark Communications Inc.
The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday upheld the biggest personal-injury verdict in state history: $20 million for a 10-year-old Richmond boy who was severely burned at a Virginia Power substation near his home.
The boy got into the substation by crawling under or climbing over a chain-link fence. He received a 13,500-volt shock and suffered third-degree burns on his face, chest and arms.
The boy's attorneys said Virginia Power did not properly install, maintain and inspect the fence. A jury in Charles City County agreed. On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict.
That ruling could have an impact here in Hampton Roads. In Portsmouth, another Virginia Power substation appears to have the same security problems.
Norfolk attorney Jeffrey A. Breit, who represented the Richmond boy, said a substation at 949 County St. in Portsmouth has numerous gaps in its security fence. Worse, Breit said, children's toys are inside the fence, indicating that children play in and around the substation.
``Several large gaps underneath the fence (are) big enough for a child to gain entrance to the substation,' Breit said. ``In fact, the gate of the substation is so poorly secured that a child could fit between the two gates.'
Virginia Power spokesman Jim Norvelle declined to discuss individual substations. ``As a company, we always put safety first,' Norvelle said.
Of the Supreme Court ruling, he said, ``We certainly respect the decision of the court.' He would not elaborate.
The Richmond accident happened on July 21, 1996, near the Summerset Glen Apartments. Three boys were playing catch when the ball went over the substation fence.
The substation is surrounded by a 6-foot, chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. The gate was locked and signs on the fence warned, ``Danger: High Voltage.'
One of the boys, 10-year-old James Dungee, either crawled under the fence or climbed over it. Once inside, he suffered a huge ``flashover burn,' in which electricity jumps or arcs from charged equipment to an adjacent object.
The boy suffered third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. He underwent eight skin surgeries over the next 35 days and was left permanently scarred and disfigured. He will require many future surgeries and years of physical and psychological therapy.
At trial, a neighbor testified that he told a Virginia Power worker one month before the accident that he had seen children playing in the substation. He said he showed the employee holes and gaps under the fence and warned, ``Somebody is going to get injured.'
A Virginia Power inspector testified that he inspected the substation two weeks before the accident, saw ``kids and stuff' around the substation and gaps under the fence. He said he did not report the holes because he thought they were not big enough for anyone to get through.
The jury found Virginia Power negligent and awarded the boy $20 million.
On appeal, Virginia Power argued that the boy himself was negligent. The Supreme Court disagreed. Under Virginia law, the court ruled, it is presumed that a child from 7 to 14 years old does not have the capacity to understand the dangers of his acts, and therefore is legally incapable of being negligent.
Virginia Power also asked the court to reduce the $20 million award. Again, the Supreme Court disagreed. ``The evidence of the plaintiff's past, present and future pain and suffering was compelling,' the court ruled.
Finally, the Supreme Court rejected Virginia Power's argument that it is not liable for harm to trespassers.
After the five-day trial in July 1998, the boy's attorneys tried to negotiate a settlement with Virginia Power, but the utility refused, Breit said.
``It was clear from the start of this litigation that Virginia Power did not want to accept responsibility for this unfortunate accident,' Breit said. ``Hopefully, now Virginia Power will acknowledge their wrongs and prevent this from ever happening again.'
It's about rebuilding the face of a young girl shattered by a drunk driver. It's about college money for 2 young boys, their father killed by a speeding tractor trailer.