Tucker jury awards $1.5 million to burn victim's family
News Service Sep. 30, 2010, 2:58am
By HEIDI PITZER
PARSONS -- A Tucker County jury awarded the family of a badly burned youth more than $1.5 million.
Jonathan and Cheri Wilson filed a civil suit against Mountaineer Gas Co. and Russell and Cindy Barkley, who owned the Parsons building, located on the corner of Third and Main streets.
Cheri Wilson's son Stevie Owens suffered third-degree burns on 80 percent of his body in an apparent natural gas explosion. Jonathan Wilson also suffered burns and received skin grafts on his hand and foot.
Owens and Wilson were injured shortly after 9 p.m. on Oct. 17, 2006.
The family was living on the second floor of the building at the time of the explosion.
During testimony last week in Tucker Circuit Court, an emotional Owens recalled the night the changed his life forever.
"I was watching TV with my mom," he said. "I went to the kitchen and as I was leaving the kitchen I heard a loud noise. I turned to look and I saw a wall of fire. I tried to run, but I couldn't get out of the kitchen. I ran to my mom to see if she could help me. John put out the fire.
"We finally made it out of the apartment. I didn't realize how badly I was injured; I was just trying to calm my mom down. We made it to the clinic across the street, and that is when I started feeling pain. From that point on I don't remember much."
After spending three months in Shriners Hospital in Cincinnati, Owens was apprehensive about coming home.
"I didn't want to leave, I was comfortable there," he said. "I was worried about how I would be treated. Whenever I got home it hit me that the scars were permanent. Seeing everybody else without them, I didn't know if I could live normally.
"I would like to tell the people of Tucker County how appreciative I am for their support, for making me feel comfortable and loved."
Jonathan Wilson also recalled that terrifying night.
"I was in bed when I heard a loud noise," he said. "I awoke to a burning wall on top of me. I heard Stevie screaming, I got him down on the living room floor and tried to get the fire out with my hands. That wasn't working, so I grabbed a couch cushion and beat the fire out.
"We were outside when I looked at Stevie and saw that his skin was falling off the bone. We made it to the emergency room and Stevie said, 'I love you Jon. Thanks for putting me out.'
"That's when I realized I was burned, the skin was already coming off of my left foot and hand. I spent five days in West Penn Burn Center. I had skin grafted from my hip to my hand and foot. My burns have healed. but I still have the scars as a reminder."
Cheri Wilson's testified that on the night of Oct. 17, 2006, "I was watching TV with Stevie, he went to make a milkshake and I asked him to turn on the dryer. There was a loud boom, I've never heard anything like it. All the lights went out and there were little fires everywhere. I saw a blue ball of fire coming towards me, I ducked down and then I heard Stevie screaming 'Help me mom I'm on fire.' It was awful, I was so scared. I was trying to get to him, but Jon told me to get out. I said I wasn't leaving without Stevie."
Over the course of the next three months, Stevie underwent 23 surgeries.
"Each surgery was terrifying. We would just sit outside and wait for the doctors to page and tell us how it went," she explained.
"I think Stevie puts on an act and doesn't let us know how badly he is still hurting. He wants to go to college, but would like to volunteer at Shriners Hospital first. I think he is afraid of how people will react. He is more comfortable here at home and at Shriners where he doesn't have to pretend."
James G. Bordas Jr., one of the attorney's representing the family, began his closing statements by thanking the jury.
"You listened to us, and we listened to you," Bordas began, "I am proud to represent three ordinary people against a big corporation. Stevie Owens just wants to be accepted, that is the most important thing in his life. But you know the problems that he will face as an adult in the future. One of his doctors actually said 'I'm not surprised he's doing well, I'm surprised he's alive.'
"But the family always had hope, they still have hope today. Stevie is trying to be brave, but you know the real reason he didn't go off to college. He is safe here with his mom and in Cincinnati."
Harry Bell, representing Mountaineer Gas, started the defense's closing statement by reiterating what he said at the beginning of the trial.
"We want to be fair and reasonable," he said. "We said in the beginning we are sorry the fire happened and for what the family, Stevie, Jonathan and Cheri, went through. This is a tragedy."
Bell, who didn't call any witnesses to testify, told the six jurors that Bordas' goal is to get as much money for the Wilson family as possible.
"You should be fair and reasonable and you need to take into account all of the circumstances of this case," he said.
He said that this case is very different because there wasn't a loss of life. He reflected on the lives of each of the three family members and the experiences the family members went through.
"Stevie knows about hope and moving forward," he said. "Stevie's attitude is to treat me like everyone else, treat me fairly ... There is nothing in this case that says Stevie can't go on and do great things, because he can."
He also acknowledged that Owens does deserve compensation. Bordas was seeking more than $50 million in the trial.
"The amount you decide on is the tally of the circumstances of what is going to be fair and right for Stevie," he said.
After Bell finished his closing argument, Bordas approached the jury offering a rebuttal for several of Bell's points.
"(Stevie) still has hope," Bordas said. "But an attitude won't take away those scars no matter how hard they try. Those pictures tell the story but we have to be realistic."
Bordas told the jurors that they are the "voice of the community."
"Now it is up to you to say on behalf of the community that we know what you've been through," he said. "It is my job to ask for a lot of money because this case deserves a lot of money."
After about two hours of deliberation the jury returned the following verdict: $1,279,090 to Owens, $96,532 to Jonathan Wilson and $150,000 to Cheri Wilson for a total of $1,525,622.
Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in The Parsons Advocate.