$65 Million For Sixth-Grader Electrocuted At Bus Stop
Jury Rejects Lightning Theory
© 2006, Lawyers Weekly USA
By Natalie White
Three years after a jury acquitted a Florida company of criminal manslaughter charges, a civil jury hit the outdoor advertiser with a $65 million verdict for the electrocution of a sixth-grade boy.
The 12-year-old sought shelter at a Miami bus stop during a thunderstorm on Oct. 12, 1998 – but what he found was death.
The defense argued at trial that lightning killed Jorge Luis Cabrera. But the plaintiffs contended that the boy was electrocuted by shoddy electrical work done by Eller Media. They claimed the company created a dangerous situation by using unqualified workers to wire the bus shelter and failing to supervise their work.
“They let Jorge walk into a death trap and he was electrocuted,” said Ervin Gonzalez, who represented the father along with attorneys Bob Martinez and Marc Cooper. “The lightning defense didn’t work in this case. The jury saw through that.”
Gonzalez said the youngster was on his way to his father’s house when he was caught in a downpour. He slipped into a lighted bus shelter and was found dead after the storm face down on the ground, burnt and covered with ants.
Gonzalez argued to jurors that Jorge’s death was not the result a simple mistake, but widespread negligence. In the wake of his death it was discovered that more than 100 Miami-Dade Transit Authority bus shelters, which were operated and maintained by Eller Media, were improperly wired, and did not have proper building permits or inspections. Today, most are lit by solar panels mounted on the roof rather than by electricity.
After a nine week civil trial, a Miami jury deliberated for two days before finding Eller Media responsible for the boy’s death and ordering the company to pay his father $65 million, including $61 million in punitive damages and $4 million for pain and suffering. Jorge’s mother, who was divorced from his father before the boy’s death, settled in 2003 for an undisclosed amount.
The defense has since moved to reduce the amount of the punitive damages. Plaintiffs’ attorney Ervin Gonzalez said he expects an appeal regardless of the ruling on that motion.
“They won on the lightning theory in the manslaughter case in criminal court. The major difference was that in the civil trial they could not take the Fifth. They had to testify,” he said.
As a result, Gonzalez was able to force the defendants to admit to their shoddy work in front of the jury – and it was the power of that live testimony that made the difference, he said.
Gonzalez said he forced the man who did the faulty wiring to admit on the stand that he was not licensed, had cut grounding rods, had not used an approved electrical box and did not install proper fuses. Company officials had also taken the Fifth at the criminal trial, but were compelled to testify at the civil trial that they had not properly supervised the electrical work.
“With no regard to public safety, they created a death trap,” said Gonzalez. “They knew they were using unlicensed electricians. They knew they were not supervising the work. If they did, they would have seen the problems, the missing fuses, the badly installed materials. It would have meant the difference between life and death for Jorge.”
Investigators and rescue workers testified at the trial that faulty wiring caused the sixth-grader to be electrocuted when he touched portions of the metal shelter.
“Eller Media spent a lot of money on experts to say it was lightning. And we had to spend a lot of time picking apart their experts to show it just wasn’t reasonable to think that it was lightning. But in the end there was just no way to defend that kind of electrical work,” Gonzalez said. “The jury saw that the evidence didn’t support the lightning theory but [instead supported] the obvious – the problems with the electrical work.”
Experts for the company said that lightning could have been the culprit and pointed to burnt holes in the boy’s clothing and a tree-like scar on his shoulder – both which might occur when hit by lightning.
But Gonzalez said that, in the end, the admissions on the stand by the electrician and company officials demonstrated a far more plausible explanation for the boy’s death – unsafe electrical wiring.
“Cutting ground rods in half, not using fuses, not bonding – these weren’t mistakes. This guy was totally unqualified to do the job and the company knew it,” Gonzalez said. “They put together a ragtag team to do this work. They did this willfully and wantonly and with total disregard for the health and safety of the public.”
The jury foreman told the Miami Herald after the verdict that he and his fellow jurors did not believe lightning killed the boy.
Of the $65 million verdict, he said: “We believe any company operating in Miami-Dade County and making money off the public should have a little more care in the people that are doing the installation.”
In a rare move, prosecutors charged both the company and the individual electrician in the criminal manslaughter case, saying that both individuals and corporations should be held responsible when they put public safety at risk. After an emotional trial in 2001, the jury acquitted the employee and the company. If Eller Media had been convicted, the company faced only a fine of $15,000, but the electrician faced a prison sentence of up to 17 years.
In its verdict form, the civil jury found that Eller Media was negligent in the construction, installation or maintenance of the bus shelter electrical system, that the negligence was a legal cause of Jorge’s death, and that the conduct of Eller Media employees warranted punitive damages.
Gonzalez asked the jury to award between $50 and $100 million in punitive damages, arguing that jurors should take into account that the company is worth $458 million.
“The point is to deter them from harming the public,” Gonzalez said. “The jury’s award was right in line with what we asked for – enough to sting, but not to bankrupt.”
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Verdict: $65 million
$61 million in punitive damages
Type of Case: Wrongful death
Trial: 9 weeks
Deliberations: 2 days
Status: Motion filed to reduce the verdict.
Case Name: Cabrera v. Eller Media Co.
Date of Verdict: June 24, 2005
Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Ervin Gonzalez, Bob Martinez and Marc Cooper of Colson Hick Eidson in Miami.
Defense Attorneys: Ronald E. Cabaniss and Deborah S. Chang of Cabaniss, Smith, Toole & Wiggins in Maitland, Fla.; Mark Seiden of Mark Seiden P.A. in Miami; Wendy Frank Lumish of Carlton Fields in Miami.