FirstEnergy must make right by paying toward $34-million verdict and changing its emergency protocols to protect the public

Electricity is dangerous, and publicly-regulated electric companies must be ready to act at a moment’s notice when accidents happen and lives are on the line. An Ohio woman found that out the hard way when her car struck a utility pole and the electric company failed to quickly respond to the emergency. Despite paramedics standing just feet away and a medical helicopter waiting nearby, they could not help Lisa Jones and her child because the electric company took almost an hour to identify its own pole, get to the scene, and make the area safe for emergency responders.

When electric companies endanger the public, it’s up to citizens to hold them accountable. That’s exactly what happened last month. As the Akron Beacon Journal reported on July 3, a central Ohio jury reached a $34‑million verdict against FirstEnergy and Ohio Edison for the harm they caused to Lisa, and the affects the accident had on her child. Attorneys Brian G. Miller (Columbus) and Barbara A. Luke (Marysville) represented Lisa and her child.

FirstEnergy is located in Akron and provides electricity in Ohio through three subsidiary operating companies, including Ohio Edison. In 2012, Lisa Jones drove to her mother’s house in Union County with her three-year-old child in the back seat. Just minutes from her destination, Lisa’s car struck an Ohio Edison utility pole. The pole snapped in two, causing a power line to come down next to Lisa’s car. Lisa suffered broken bones and an injured spleen, and she and her child were trapped.

Emergency responders arrived within 10 minutes and a medical helicopter arrived minutes later. But until Ohio Edison moved the power lines, the responders had to wait. They ended up waiting, standing helplessly by, for almost an hour.

Law enforcement called FirstEnergy twice to ask the company to respond to the scene. However, FirstEnergy was unprepared to deal with this emergency. The company’s computer systems were set up so poorly that employees couldn’t locate the company’s own utility poles. Instead of tracking the location of every company pole, which would allow for a quick response to accidents like this, FirstEnergy only tracked customer addresses. This meant FirstEnergy could not find the pole location and get an employee to the scene to help.

Fifty-two minutes after the first call, a FirstEnergy partner employee finally arrived and moved the power lines so emergency responders could get Lisa out of her vehicle, onto the helicopter, and to the hospital. However, the lag meant that the start of the hospital’s required protocols and treatment was delayed. As doctors prepared to operate on Lisa, her heart stopped and she lost oxygen to her brain. If the hospital had just ten extra minutes, Lisa would have had a simple operation and an uneventful recovery. Instead, Lisa suffered permanent brain damage and will never be able to work, care for herself, or care for her son again. Their lives will never be the same.

With the verdict against FirstEnergy and its partner Ohio Edison, we can find some comfort in knowing that Lisa’s family will be able to afford the care that Lisa needs. This assumes, of course, that FirstEnergy pays the verdict on a timely basis. Or, it could take a different, less caring route. It could tie up the case for months or even years in an appeals process or other legal wrangling. FirstEnergy should take responsibility now that the jury has spoken and make payment in order to help bring some good to this situation.

Moreover, FirstEnergy should recognize that its job isn’t just to provide electricity to the public; it must also keep the public safe when lives are on the line. This is an obligation that FirstEnergy accepted when it started stringing high-voltage power lines past our homes and through our communities, lines that, if touched, could end a life in an instant. FirstEnergy must accept that its system failed Lisa Jones, evaluate its computer systems and emergency protocols, and do everything it can to make sure that what happened to Lisa never happens again. FirstEnergy must be better. And we must do everything we can as citizens to hold them accountable.