What must electric utility companies do to keep the public safe?

A summary of the laws power companies are required to follow to prevent electrocution injuries and deaths

The “standard of care” and the Michigan Supreme Court case Schultz v. Consumers outlines the responsibilities of power companies to prevent injury and death

Electric utility companies have immense responsibilities. In addition to providing electricity to the entire country, they must properly manage the power source to keep the workers in the vicinity of the power lines safe, as well as the general public.

Below, our attorneys have summarized the laws that outline what electric utility companies are required to do to prevent electrocution injuries and deaths from occurring.

Protect people in the vicinity of power lines
The “Standard of Care” for power companies in different states
Inspection duties
Prevent sagging wires

Protect people in the vicinity of power lines

In general, the provision of distribution power by electric utility companies in the U.S. is considered a “service,”  rather than a “product,” and principles of negligence, rather than strict liability or product liability, apply.

Although laws from state to state may vary, a good example of the duties owed to people in the vicinity of electric conductors can be found in the Michigan Supreme Court case of Schultz v Consumers Power Company, 443 Mich 445, 406 N.W. 2nd 175 (1993).

In the case, plaintiff Duane Schultz was electrocuted while helping a friend paint his house. They used a 27-foot aluminum extension ladder to reach the peak of the house with paint. After Mr. Schultz grabbed the upright ladder to move it away, and a “brilliant flash” occurred, without contacting any wire, tragically killing him.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled:

  • “A power company has an obligation to reasonably inspect and repair wires and other instrumentalities in order to discover and remedy hazards and defects.”
  • Compliance with the National Electric Safety Code or an industry-wide standard is not an absolute defense to a claim of negligence.
  • “Electric companies must exercise ordinary care to guarantee that equipment is kept in reasonably safe condition.”
  • “Although we do not follow a rule of absolute liability, the defendant’s duties to inspect and repair involve more than merely remedying defective conditions actually brought to its attention.”
  • “While it may be evidence of due care, conformity with industry standards is not conclusive on the question of negligence where a reasonable person engaged in the industry would take additional precautions under the circumstances.”

In other words, the power company is responsible for keeping the public safe – not cleaning or covering up the mess after its defective power lines or equipment have caused an otherwise preventable injury or death.

In addition, electrical companies have a duty to prevent injury to people coming in contact with their wires —  and it applies to the public in general, according to West Texas Utilities Company v Renner. In addition to protecting the public, electrical companies owe these duties to any individual engaged in a lawful occupation in a place where he is entitled to be under this case. Therefore, people who come into contact with an electrical wire are not trespassers or licensees that are bound to take the premises in the condition in which they find them.

The “Standard of Care” for power companies in different states

The standard of care and safety an electric company owes to people slightly varies by jurisdiction. Generally, companies must use reasonable or ordinary care in the construction and maintenance of their lines. Some jurisdictions, like in New Hampshire and New York, express this standard as using reasonable care and diligence.

Other jurisdictions impose a much higher standard of care. For instance, the state of North Carolina has held that while still not an insurer, an electrical company’s care owed “is something more, under the law, as the court understands it, than ordinary care; it is the highest care,” according to McAllister v Pryor. This is because “electricity is not only dangerous, even deadly, but it is invisible, noiseless, and odorless, rendering it impossible to detect the presence of the peril until the fatal work is finished,” according to Connecticut v. Lexington Utilities Company.

The Federal 8th Circuit (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota) has also applied this high care standard. Courts in these jurisdictions are concerned with how dangerous electrical lines can be, so they feel as though “a company owes to its patrons the duty to protect them from injury by exercising the highest skill, most consummate care and caution, and the utmost diligence and foresight in the construction, maintenance and inspection,” according to McAllister.

Many jurisdictions seem to fall in between these two ends, but more toward a higher standard of care. Whether it is a high standard of care (Utah ), very high (West Virginia ), the highest (Federal 8th Circuit, North Carolina , Pennsylvania), or the utmost degree of care (Kentucky, Louisiana, Washington ), any time there’s a live wire with electricity, most jurisdictions seem to apply a standard of care that’s above “reasonable care” in that situation.

Inspection duties

In erecting and installing power lines, utility companies “must exercise a degree of care commensurate with the danger for the protection of those who rightfully may be subject to peril, according to Connecticut v. Lexington Utilities Company. Additionally, an electrical company also has a duty to “make reasonable inspections of wires and other instrumentalities in order to discover and remedy hazards and defects,” under Thornton v Ark. Valley Electric Coop. Corp. What amounts to ‘reasonable inspections’ is a question of fact for a jury to decide. And how often the inspections should be made will depend on the circumstances of the particular case, according to Andrews v. Appalachian Electric Power Company.

Here’s more information from our attorneys on what power companies are required to do to protect the public with their inspections.

Prevent sagging wires

Part of the duty to erect and maintain electrical wires includes making sure utility wires are not sagging, hanging or are too low. For example, the power company was liable for injuries the plaintiff worker sustained when he was repairing a roof and the electrical wire was only four feet above the roof at the time of the injuries, according to Moore v Carolina Power & Light Company.

Since the power company did nothing to remove the hazard, there was evidence of negligence on behalf of the power company. Additionally, the state law in North Carolina required that all power lines be kept eight feet above the buildings, so there was more than enough evidence that the defendants were negligent. 

However, sagging wires does not require a finding of negligence on behalf of electrical companies. For example, in Darden v City of Washington, a judgment for the defendant was affirmed when the plaintiff saw a loose hanging wire while pruning shrubbery and tried to move it with his hands. In Darden, since the plaintiff saw the wire and then proceeded to touch it, the Court found that the plaintiff had notice of the dangerous wire and there were not enough facts to render the defendant utility company liable.

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