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
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.