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By IAN URBINA and SABRINA TAVERNISE
November 24, 2004
Nearly a year after a woman was electrocuted while walking her dogs on a wet East Village street, Consolidated Edison has agreed to pay her family more than $6.2 million and to set up a $1 million scholarship fund in her name at Columbia University, where she was a doctoral student.
The settlement, announced late yesterday, ended months of negotiations between Con Edison and the family of the woman, Jodie S. Lane, who died the night of Jan. 16 after stepping on an electrified metal plate near a bakery on East 11th Street.
Ms. Lane's death set off a firestorm of criticism of the utility that led to aggressive new safety rules and citywide inspections of electrical equipment that turned up hundreds of locations where the public was exposed to stray voltage.
Under the terms of the settlement, Con Edison will provide a $1 million fund at the Teachers College for scholarships and research in the clinical psychology department, where Ms. Lane, 30, was completing her degree.
The Jodie Lane Fund - which will receive five annual installments of $200,000 each - will be established after legal proceedings are completed, probably early next year, said a spokesman for the college, Joe Levine.
In an unusual move, Con Edison will form a panel consisting of three electrical safety experts - two chosen by a foundation Ms. Lane's family will create, and one by the utility - that will meet periodically to review the company's safety performance.
It was the Lane family's idea that a settlement include an education aspect, and Ms. Lane's father, Roger M. Lane, said yesterday by telephone from his home in Texas that the settlement "will lead to a great way to memorialize my daughter through the scholarship at Columbia."
"A settlement like this is never easy to achieve, but I think the parties to the settlement acted in a first-class manner and the end result is something quite unusual," he said.
The Lane family will use part of the money to create the Jodie S. Lane Public Safety Foundation, which will pursue efforts to improve public safety in New York, Mr. Lane said.
The metal plate Ms. Lane stepped on had become electrified by a wire inside a utility box that had not been properly insulated. The shock killed her, though her dogs survived. Since then, her father, a 57-year-old engineer, haunted by her death, has learned about electrical systems and pushed Con Ed to overhaul its safety policies.
Those efforts were part of yesterday's settlement. The panel of electrical experts will monitor the utility's efforts to expand training for first responders in handling electrical emergencies. It will also oversee the utility's efforts to detect and repair stray-voltage problems, and produce reports that it will release to the public and the Lane family.
Of the $6.25 million to be paid to the Lane family, $5.27 million is for the claim of wrongful death and $975,000 is for Ms. Lane's pain and suffering, according to papers filed in Surrogate's Court in Manhattan yesterday. Under the terms of the settlement, the company will pay about $7.25 million, including the scholarship.
Eugene R. McGrath, chairman and chief executive of Con Edison, said in a statement yesterday that "the men and women of Con Edison deeply regret the tragic death of Jodie S. Lane," and that "this settlement allows us to demonstrate our continuing commitment to making New York a better place."
In settling, the company appeared to acknowledge fault in Ms. Lane's death, a conclusion its own investigators seemed to have reached several months after she died, when they found that workers had improperly insulated a wire.
Legal experts said the settlement was remarkable in several ways. Wrongful death settlements in which the person who died was unmarried and childless, as was Ms. Lane, are rarely so big. And the amount exceeded the maximum single payout from the federal fund set up to compensate families of Sept. 11 victims, which was just under $7 million.
"It's unusually large," said Oscar Chase, a law professor at New York University Law School. "This is definitely in the upper range of what I've seen in any case in New York."
Also, the choice of establishing a scholarship fund is unusual. Funds given to a third party are sometimes part of class action suits, when a company does not want to appear to be admitting wrongdoing, but not often part of cases like Ms. Lane's, said John C. Coffee, Jr., a professor of law at Columbia University.
The fund will bear her name and carry her memory, and that is what is important to her family and her former doctoral adviser, Barry A. Farber. Ms. Lane was writing a book for children who suffer from attention deficit disorder, Mr. Farber said, and the fund will help ensure that the research she was doing will continue.
"I'm struck and gratified by the generosity of the family," said Mr. Farber, a professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College. "It's a wonderful way of remembering her, and it's so consistent with who she was and what she would have wanted."
Ms. Lane was further memorialized in September, when Community Board 3, which includes the East Village, voted to rename 11th Street between Avenue A and Second Avenue Jodie Lane Place. The City Council will vote on the proposal in coming months.
As a result of Ms. Lane's death, state and city officials imposed strict new rules on how the utility guards against electrical hazards. In September, the City Council passed a law requiring Con Edison to inspect almost all of its equipment annually to protect against stray voltage, and it required the utility to publish the results of these inspections.
In October, state regulators passed similar inspection rules, while also requiring all utilities in the state to report cases in which people are injured by stray voltage within an hour of the incident. Con Ed said it has already begun a comprehensive program of research and development targeted at eliminating stray voltage incidents.
This program began immediately following
Ms. Lane's death and is expected to continue.
"Our family will never have closure because we will always live with the pain of this loss," he said, adding that, "hopefully it will help prevent the problems that caused our loss."
Perhaps it was Mr. Farber who put it most succinctly.
"It's a remarkable family - they've taken their grief and found a way of transforming it into meaning," he said.
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