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Qwest to inspect wooden poles
Plan disclosed in court papers from '04 accident
By James Paton
Rocky Mountain News
Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Qwest is launching a plan to inspect and test its wooden utility poles across Colorado after a jury found the company was to blame for a 2004 accident that left lineman Andy Blood paralyzed.  Qwest disclosed in documents filed recently in Denver District Court that it will check nearly all of its 157,000 poles in the state, starting this month, to make sure they haven't decayed.  Deteriorated poles will be replaced or reinforced, the company said.

A jury in May awarded nearly $40 million to Blood, an Xcel worker who sued Qwest in 2005.

The Qwest-owned pole he was working on in Adams County toppled, bringing Blood down with it.  The pole, put into the ground in 1958, was rotten beneath the surface.

Blood's lawyer, Bill Keating, argued that Qwest's effort is "inadequate" and that the company should roll out a periodic maintenance program that goes further.

"It's better than nothing," Keating said.  "But the best thing for Qwest to do would be to enter into a contract with an outside company, start a regular inspection program and say, 'We're going to get this done.'  I don't understand the reluctance to do that."

Judge Sheila Rappaport apparently agreed.

Earlier this month, she sided with the plaintiffs and significantly increased the damages.

Citing "overwhelming" evidence that Qwest continued to put employees and the public at risk by failing to inspect and repair its poles, the judge ruled the company must pay about $84 million.

The jury's verdict -- $21 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages -- was Colorado's largest injury award for a single person, according to local legal experts.

Now it's even larger, with the judge boosting the punitive damages to $63 million.

Qwest had sought a hearing to present evidence of its "current pole safety efforts," disputing the claim it had continued "willful and wanton" behavior.

In fighting the plaintiffs, the Denver telco relied on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a nearly $80 million award against Philip Morris.  Qwest's attorneys have said the damages should be limited to the harm caused to the plaintiff.

The former lineman, a paraplegic, lives in Henderson with his wife, Carrie Blood.

Blood's lawyers had claimed in the lawsuit that Qwest failed to meet an obligation to keep its poles safe, breaking a 1960 pact.  Qwest employees testifying during the trial acknowledged that the company lacked a formal program to routinely inspect and maintain its poles.

Qwest -- which sued Xcel, alleging the accident was the electric company's fault -- said linemen should perform a "prod" test before climbing, a step Blood did not take.  Qwest said Xcel had not properly trained the apprentice lineman, now 27 years old.

Qwest also highlighted internal Xcel memos citing other workers at the scene of the 2004 accident for safety violations.  The reports reminded the Xcel linemen that poles must be "adequately supported" when they are being stripped and wires are being removed.

Qwest spokesman Bob Toevs said the company plans to appeal but declined to comment further.

Qwest said in the papers that the procedures it is carrying out beginning this month are the same ones its workers and subcontractors have used for years.

As part of the "reinventory," the company said its employees, along with an outside firm, will check its poles, looking for lightning damage, cracks, woodpecker holes, broken wires and other warning signs.

Then they will hammer in different spots, listening for the sound of a structurally strong pole, and conduct the prod tests.

If those steps raise any red flags, the company will perform additional tests, including drilling.

Qwest said in the document that it has a "strong pole safety record and seeks to ensure that it operates its pole plant safely."

Utility pole 'reinventory'

Qwest is conducting a "reinventory" of almost all of its 157,000 utility poles in Colorado, beginning this month. The process involves:

  A visual inspection.

  "Sound" tests using a 3-pound hammer, as well as "prod" tests on poles more than 25 years old.

  Drilling tests, if decay is detected.

  Replacement or reinforcement of poles, if necessary.

patonj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-2544

http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/other_business/article/0,2777,DRMN_23916_5701539,00.html