Ispat-Inland has agreed to pay a Portage man $2.1 million as a settlement for injuries the man received from a 69,000-volt line on a tower he was painting.

Joe Willis was 22 in 1997 and working for Pangere Corp. at Ispat-Inland's East Chicago plant when the accident occurred. He had been working for Pangere about two years, and he and another man were on an electrical tower that carried transmission lines to the plant.

According to an accident investigation by Inland, power to a portion of the tower had been cut off for the men to work and the men were instructed about which areas were safe. The accident report said Willis began painting toward the area of the tower that was not de-energized and came into contact with the line. The jolt knocked him off the tower, and he was left dangling on the end of his safety harness 125 feet above the ground.

His co-worker was able to get him to the tower ladder, and both climbed to the ground. Willis was airlifted to the University of Chicago Burn Center with second- and third-degree burns on his back, buttocks and legs. He underwent dozens of surgeries and intensive burn therapies over the ensuing months.

Willis accumulated more than $100,000 in medical bills. His lawyer, Kenneth J. Allen, filed suit against Inland alleging the company "directed and permitted work to be performed by Joe and other painters on the tower without the lines first being de-energized and failed to provide necessary safety equipment."

The company denied the allegations and did not admit to any fault in the settlement. Allen said it was more important that the company make policy changes to prevent such injuries than being concerned over blame.

"A little advance planning and work would have saved him from injury, the medical bills and pain and suffering," Allen said. "The men couldn't be more than 13 feet away from the energized part of the tower. It should have been de-energized if men were going to be working on it."

After recovering from the accident, Willis tried to go back to work as an industrial painter, but he soon realized the trauma of the accident was not something he could deal with, Allen said. Still single, he got other jobs ranging from pizza delivery to carpentry to support himself.

"Joe didn't plan his life around this lawsuit. He tried to go back to his trade, and, when he couldn't, he made a change. When he wasn't able to return to his old job, he found other work and has returned to school where he plans to get a business degree."

Willis continues to work as a carpenter and hopes to start his own drywall and carpentry contractor's business, Allen said. He credited Willis' strong character with convincing the steel company to settle rather than take the suit to a jury. The case was filed with the Cook County Circuit Court.

"We bring cases like Joe's largely to promote preventative safety measures so that other working men and women do not face similar misfortune," Allen said. "Joe Willis would have preferred no settlement and to not be injured."

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