$65.1 Million Verdict in Boy’s Electrocution Death Against Eller Media Corp.

By Chrystian Tejedor
Miami Bureau
June 25, 2005

A Miami-Dade jury on Friday awarded $65.1 million to the father of a boy electrocuted at a bus shelter, finding that the shelter owner’s negligence in hiring unlicensed electricians caused the boy’s death.

“It’s not going to bring back my son but [the jury] sent out the message that these things are not tolerated,” said Jorge Cabrera Sr. on Friday.

The jury found Eller Media Co. was negligent in the construction, installation and maintenance of the shelter, actions that led to the death of 12-year-old Jorge Luis Cabrera on Oct. 12, 1998. His father was awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages and $61 million in punitive damages.

“The jury spoke very loudly on electrical safety,” said Cabrera’s wrongful death attorney, from Colson Hicks Eidson. “It’s enough to sting the corporation — to let them know this behavior won’t be tolerated — but it’s not enough to bankrupt them.”

Friday’s award was among the highest in recent years in Florida lawsuits involving children.

In 2003, a Miami-Dade County jury awarded $104 million to the family of a teen who suffered permanent brain damage after being trapped by a pool’s pump. Last year, the Third District Court of Appeal tossed out the verdict.

In 1999, Miami-Dade jurors awarded $37 million to the parents of a 12-year-old girl killed in a traffic accident after Florida Power & Light shut off a traffic signal at a Pinecrest intersection. The award against FPL was eventually reduced to $10 million.

Jorge Cabrera was the first person in Miami-Dade County to die from electrocution at a bus shelter. Most Miami-Dade shelters today are solar powered.

Cabrera’s attorneys said the key to Friday’s victory was that Victor Garcia and other unlicensed electricians testified about their work on the shelters.

Garcia and the company were acquitted in an earlier criminal trial.

At the shelter where Jorge was found, Garcia and Alan Tavares, another unlicensed electrician, installed an incorrect transformer, failed to install a fuse that would prevent a short circuit, and cut grounding rods meant to divert electricity deep underground, Garcia testified.

Garcia used a transformer not designed for the waterproof housing on the shelter. He said he added legs to keep it from touching the bottom of the box. The transformer was leaning against the back of the metallic housing.

The insulation wore down after rubbing against the housing, sending 480 volts of power through the bus shelter. Jorge was electrocuted as he ran by on that stormy night, his father’s wrongful death attorney said.

Attorneys for Eller have said lightning killed the boy after striking a nearby light post and hitting him.

“I still think that science showed the bus shelter did not cause the death of the boy, but the jury has spoken,” said Eller’s defense attorney Ron Cabaniss.

State and county code compliance officials said Friday that individuals and businesses sometimes hire unlicensed electricians and contractors to cut costs.

“We stay on top of it,” said Mark Reddinger, a manager at Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Those who hire unlicensed electricians or contractors run the risk of not realizing there’s a problem until it’s too late, Reddinger said.

“Your first danger is that it could cause a shock or fire hazard,” he said, “and before you know it you’re waking up to a fire.”

Staff Writer Madeline Baro Diaz and Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Chrystian Tejedor can be reached at ctejedor@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5001.

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