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Just Witnessing an Accident Is a Personal Injury

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Freehold, NJFour years ago Patricia Hagerman watched in horror as her husband was electrocuted by a downed power line in front of their home on Pear Street in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. William Hagerman, a postal worker, lost an arm and a leg in the accident, and although she was not physically injured, the psychological damage done to Patricia Hagerman was also significant and life changing.

The accident happened in February 2007, in the aftermath of a violent winter storm. The Hagermans had been without heat or electricity for days and were on their way to stay with relatives. As they backed out of their driveway a downed power line sparked a fire at the rear of the car. They escaped from the vehicle unharmed, but fearing an explosion, William Hagerman ran back to turn off the engine.

Patricia Hagerman watched helplessly as the powerful charge curdled his body.

A jury in Monmouth County Superior Court, New Jersey, recently found the Tinton Falls North Side Engine Company (the fire department) and the power company, JCP&L, liable for the catastrophic accident, and ordered the Hagermans be paid $20.5 million in damages, including $2 million in damages to Patricia Hagerman.

Patricia Hagerman's attorney, Thomas Comer, from the firm of Lomurro, Davison, Eastman & Muñoz, PA, describes his client as "a stoic and very private person."

She came across very well on the stand. She told the jury some things she had never told me during the course of the four years I worked with her," says Comer. "Her testimony at trial was very compelling."

A juror wept as Comer led Patricia Hagerman through her testimony in court. She described how she feels every time she sees her husband without his prosthetic arm and leg, and how she believes she should have done something to help him.

"She wants to apologize to him because when he was on the ground she didn't do anything to help," says Comer. "So for the last four or five years she gets these feelings of guilt knowing that he is going to live with that for the rest of his life," says Comer. "Of course, helping was impossible. She would have been injured or killed herself."

Patricia Hagerman had two claims for damages. The first is a Portee Claim, which, as Comer explains, means that if you witness a close family member suffer a serious personal injury and you have severe emotional distress as a result of that, even though you yourself are not injured physically, you can bring a claim for your injuries. Secondly, Patricia Hagerman sued for per quod or the loss of consortium and companionship of her husband. She was awarded $1.25 million for the Portee Claim and $750,000 for the loss of consortium, for a total of $2 million.

Total verdict amount was one of the largest in Monmouth County for a personal injury case. "It was a catastrophic accident," says Comer. "It may seem like a lot of money, but when William Hagerman came into sign his release form, he said 'if you put $20 million on the bench and you put my arm and leg on the bench, I'd rather have my arm and leg.'"

Thomas Comer is the head of the civil litigation and personal injury departments at Lomurro, Davison, Eastman & Muñoz PA. He has been a practicing attorney for 23 years, and is a frequent guest speaker and moderator at legal education seminars sponsored by the New Jersey Bar Association and New Jersey Association for Justice.


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