Pa. Superior Court affirms $7.8 million verdict against Consol Energy
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A state Superior Court panel has affirmed a $7.8 million verdict against Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. in favor of two men who were injured when a Consol staircase that they were descending collapsed.
The ruling upholds the final judgment of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge David N. Wecht, now a Superior Court judge, who denied Consol's post-trial motions and tacked on delay damages to the jury's multimillion-dollar verdict. In May 2011, Judge Wecht denied Consol its motion for post-trial relief.
The unanimous three-judge panel, led by Judge Mary Jane Bowes, was the first appellate court to adopt and uphold Pennsylvania's Rule of Civil Procedure allowing the itemization of damages, which came as a 2004 amendment to the rules, according to an attorney involved in the case.
Consol raised eight issues on appeal. Among them were whether the damages were exorbitant, whether certain expert testimony should have been allowed, and whether the energy giant was entitled a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial because the evidence established one of the plaintiffs as a "borrowed servant."
But, according to the attorney for one of two sets of plaintiffs in Gillingham v. Consol Energy, the panel paid most attention at oral argument to a liability release that his client signed, along with the itemization of damages issue.
The panel concluded there was a sufficient question of fact as to whether David Gillingham -- who sued with his wife, Debra -- was compelled to sign a host of documents because of Consol's "superior bargaining position." The question was properly handed over to the jury, Judge Bowes said.
According to Judge Bowes, Consol presented Mr. Gillingham with hundreds of pages of documents that Mr. Gillingham testified he "had to sign" in order to preserve a contract job for another company that was based at Consol's facilities. He testified he would have violated his contract with the other company, Technical Solutions, had he not signed the documents, Judge Bowes said.
"Mr. Gillingham was never informed that he was assenting to a waiver of his right to sue Consol in the event he was injured due to its negligence," Judge Bowes said. "He felt that he had to sign the pages in question since he was contractually obligated to provide his services on the project through Technical Solutions."
Judge Judith Ference Olson and Senior Judge William H. Platt joined Judge Bowes.
Mr. Gillingham and another plaintiff, Clifford Decker, sued after a 2007 accident in which a staircase they were descending separated from the outside of a Consol facility. They fell 13 feet to the ground and both sustained serious injuries, according to the opinion. According to Judge Bowes, the staircase was secured to the building by rusty bolts and was insecure.
Mr. Decker and his wife, Pamela, collected $5 million, with $500,000 for future pain and suffering and $423,000 for loss of "consortium," or the companionship between husband and wife.
Mr. Gillingham and his wife received $2.8 million. The jury designated $500,000 to David Gillingham for future pain and suffering. Debra Gillingham received $923,000 for loss of consortium.
Following the panel's ruling, Mr. Decker and his wife received $5.78 million and the Gillinghams claimed $3.2 million after delay damages and post-judgment interest.
None of the damages were exorbitant, excessive or beyond what the evidence warranted, the panel ruled.
First Published July 23, 2012 12:00 am