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
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
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
Utility pole 'reinventory'
Qwest is conducting a "reinventory" of almost all of its
157,000 utility poles in Colorado, beginning this month. The
• 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