Safety questions raised after tragic electrocution death of Austin Wohlfeil by DTE Powerline

DTE’s own self-serving statements fail to address root cause of why wire was down

caution-tape

I recently read about the tragic death of a 16-year old young man from Taylor, Michigan, as was reported by the Detroit Free Press on July 9. Austin Wohlfeil was electrocuted by an energized DTE powerline that came down in a storm. While the Detroit Free Press account was lacking in important factual details, it raises some important safety questions about preventability and responsibility. Instead, the article contained some very general safety tips, most of which were inapplicable to this death, and a Facebook post from DTE of a public relations nature.

Significantly, WDIV Local 4’s reporting on this tragedy shed more light on the important questions DTE needs to answer. For instance, reporter Jermont Terry said: “Neighbors tell me they’ve complained about the rotten power poles and the trees too close to powerlines for months …” Additionally, a neighbor of the Wohlfeil family asked: “Why does somebody have to bury a child before they fix this? It’s outdated. It’s rotted. It’s out-of-control.”

As one of the few lawyers who has actually successfully litigated cases against DTE in the past, the glossing over of how exactly this tragedy occurred is to be expected. But I also created and author this national electrocution safety blog after several decades of experience litigating these types of cases against powerful utility and powerline companies with the specific aim of preventing these terrible tragedies from happening. DTE glossing over root cause determinations in this case, and just how preventable this tragic young man’s death was, does not allow DTE and other power companies to prevent future tragedies like this from happening. The public may still be needlessly endangered if an analysis is not made as to why this electrocution death happened, and how it may have been prevented.

These were some questions that I had, not addressed by the Detroit Free Press account:

  1. Did DTE know, or did they have information from which they should have known, that the subject wire was “down”?
  2. If DTE knew, or should have known that the “conductor” was down, did they establish a safety perimeter to protect the public, using “caution tape” and/or “wire down personnel” until the hazard could be eliminated/repaired? If not, why not?
  3. Storms and bad weather in Michigan are foreseeable events.
    DTE and other power and utility companies employ meteorologists and other individuals, whose jobs involve anticipating potentially damaging weather events, and responding appropriately to their effects.
  4. When poletop high voltage distribution powerlines fall during a storm, often it’s because of a failure and/or defect in power poles, or in poletop hardware and/or structures, such as crossarms, insulators, insulator pins, and/or insulator ties.
  5. Did this powerline fall, and become a safety hazard to the public, because of aging infrastructure, or dangerous deterioration of structures and/or components?
  6. It is DTE’s legal duty to use due care and caution in the inspection, maintenance, and repair of its power distribution system, to discover dangerous and/or deteriorated conditions thereof, and to maintain their infrastructure in good repair. Often, components that are aging, weak, and/or in disrepair, are most prone to failure during foreseeable adverse weather events. Is that what happened here? Was there ever an inspection made of this area, and were the components damaged and/or in a state of disrepair that would have been easily identifiable if only DTE did perform an inspection?
  7. DTE and other similar companies are also required to adopt and employ a prudent and reasonable “tree trim” policy for “line clearance”, so that trees and branches in proximity to overhead powerlines would not damage nearby powerlines during windy and stormy conditions. Were trees, branches, and/or leaves in proximity to this powerline at all responsible for its having fallen? If so, can DTE, individually and/or through its tree trim contractor, be held accountable?

In the Detroit Free Press article, DTE alluded to their conducting an investigation. In my past experiences with DTE, and especially whenever a fatal electrocution such as this occurs, DTE’s legal department sends investigators to the scene as soon as possible. This is not done as a safety and preventability investigation. Rather, this is done by DTE legal to begin strategizing their legal defense.

One thing I always encourage any family after such a loss is to consider hiring an experienced electrocution attorney as soon as possible to perform their own independent investigation, using independent investigators, expert engineers, and all of the resources and knowledge at their disposal to uncover the truth of what happened.

The proverb “Who watches the watcher?” refers to the impossibility of enforcing self-examination and moral behavior when those with unclean hands or those whose own negligent acts or choices are put in charge of also investigating themselves. An independent investigation of the questions I’ve raised above, after more than 40 years of being a lawyer and litigating these types of cases, is the only way I’ve ever found to save lives and to protect the public. It’s why I started this electrocution safety blog. And it is why I publicly raise these issues when terrible, and likely preventable, tragedies occur that otherwise would continue to be ignored.

 

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