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Qwest ordered to pay $84 million to injured lineman
Company's safety practices found to be still deficient
By David Milstead
Rocky Mountain News
Friday, September 7, 2007

One of Colorado's largest injury verdicts for a single person is now significantly bigger, with a judge ruling Qwest must pay paralyzed lineman Andy Blood more than $84 million.  Blood won nearly $40 million from a Denver District Court jury in May.   Blood, an Xcel lineman, sued Qwest after he was paralyzed by a June 2004 fall from a utility pole that had rotted beneath the earth's surface.  The jury heard testimony that Qwest had no program for inspecting its poles to see which might be at risk of toppling.

After the verdict, Blood's lawyers sued to increase the punitive damages, arguing "the continuing conduct of the defendant exposed employees and members of the public to the risk of serious injury or death."

Under Colorado law, says Blood attorney Bill Keating, a judge may decrease a punitive award if the defendant shows evidence it has stopped the behavior that prompted the award.

But the judge may also replace the jury's punitive award with a new amount up to three times the compensatory damages.

Judge Sheila Ann Rappaport did that, saying "the magnitude of the potential harm to others" justified it.  So the original $18 million in punitive damages becomes $63 million, added to the $21 million in compensatory damages the jury awarded.

"Although the verdict was substantial, Qwest did not hear the message in that verdict," Keating said.  "So the judge's decision is a bit louder."

He estimates that with post-judgment interest, the total will approach $90 million.

Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said, "We strongly disagree with the court's ruling, and we will appeal."

Qwest fought the motion by arguing the Colorado statute allowing triple damages is unconstitutional.  Qwest said the law impermissibly directs the court to consider potential harm to others, not just the plaintiff, in increasing punitive damages.

It also said the award shouldn't increase "on the basis of Qwest's size and perceived wealth."  Qwest wanted a hearing so it could "present evidence of its current pole safety efforts."

The company, in a court filing, said it planned to launch inspections this month of nearly all of its 157,000 Colorado poles.  Poles older than 25 years will also get "sound tests," involving the striking of a hammer in search of a dull noise, and a "prod test," in which a shaft is inserted into the pole below ground level.

Finance Editor David Milstead can be reached at milstead@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2648.