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Copyright © 1993 Times Publishing Company

St. Petersburg Times

February 21, 1993, Sunday, City Edition

[Note: Dr. Robert Polackwich was the primary financial backer for our 1987 salvage effort.
His stepson, Jonathan Richards, participated as a member of our crew.]



LENGTH: 563 words

HEADLINE: Jury awards $ 6-million to widow



Florida Power & Light should pay more than $ 6-million to a Tampa woman whose husband and son were electrocuted when their sailboat drifted into power lines strung off the coast of Boca Grande, a jury decided Saturday.

After deliberating about 17 hours, the jury decided that negligence by the Miami-based utility was almost two-thirds responsible for the (April 23,) 1988 deaths of Robert Polackwich and his stepson, Jonathan Richards.

That meant the jury believed the two men were about 35 percent responsible for their deaths. The jury awarded $ 9.3-million in damages, but the amount that will go to the estate is reduced by the victims' responsibility.

There was little reaction from either side when the verdict was read. Polackwich's widow, Stephanie Polackwich, was not present.

She was barred from the courtroom last week after she cursed and threw a plastic aspirin bottle at a Florida Power & Light attorney during testimony.

"Generally, I think I'm satisfied," Alan Polackwich, Polackwich's brother and personal representative of the estate, said after the verdict. "The money all goes to his wife and kids."

Chris Knopik, a Tampa lawyer representing Florida Power & Light, said the corporation felt Polackwich and his stepson were more than 35 percent responsible for the electrocution. But he said he wasn't sure if his client would appeal the jury's decision.

The $ 6.045-million award, one of the largest in the Tampa Bay area in recent years, was keyed to the lost future earnings of Robert Polackwich, 40, a cancer specialist.

Polackwich earned $ 660,000 in the year before his death, and his practice had not reached its peak, according to Mrs. Polackwich's attorneys. Polackwich's estate had requested damages of $ 14-million.

Circuit Judge Richard Lazzara denied claims for mental distress caused by the son's death.

"(That's) something we feel is a terrible injustice," said Christian Searcy, one of Mrs. Polackwich's attorneys. He said they would appeal that point.

The incident that led to the court battle occurred in April 1988 during a weekend getaway. The Polackwiches, their infant, and Richards, Mrs. Polackwich's son from a previous marriage, had gone to Boca Grande in Charlotte County to relax and do a little sailing.

While sailing together on a rented catamaran near islands on the Intracoastal Waterway, Polackwich and Richards, 19, ran into problems. They began drifting backward out of control. That's when the catamaran's 26-foot mast touched 25-foot Florida Power & Light electric transmission lines, killing both men.

Polackwich's attorneys argued that Florida Power and Light was negligent for not building the lines higher. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a 30-foot clearance in 1958, and a 29-foot clearance after some repairs were made to the lines in 1960 when Hurricane Donna struck the area.

Somehow one end pole was sunk low, resulting in the 25-foot clearance. John A. Shipley, one of Mrs. Polackwich's attorneys, said the Corps of Engineers noted that measurement in its files, but apparently never notified the power company.

Tampa lawyer Steven Yerrid, who defended Florida Power & Light, argued that the power lines did not present a dangerous hazard, as evidenced by the fact that no other sailboat had hit them in 28 years.

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