Should government-owned electric utility companies be immune from lawsuits?

U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether government-owned electric utility companies like Tennessee Valley Authority can be liable for electrocutions caused by their negligence

Government-owned electric utility companies - Should they be immune from liability for negligence?

There’s a case before the U.S. Supreme Court whose outcome will determine whether electrocution and electrical shock victims are powerless to hold government-owned electric utility companies liable for their negligence.

The case is Thacker v. Tennessee Valley Authority where one man was electrocuted and one man suffered a serious electrical shock injury when they came into contact with a downed powerline that the TVA was attempting to lift out of the Tennessee River.

The men and their families sued, but the federal courts threw their case out, concluding that the TVA was engaged in “discretionary” governmental acts at the time of the injuries and, thus, was immune from liability under the “discretionary function” exception to immunity under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

The TVA’s so-called “discretionary” acts consisted of raising a powerline that the TVA had accidentally dropped in the river when an earlier cable pulling process had failed.

The issue that the Supreme Court has to decide is whether the TVA was properly granted governmental immunity from liability for its negligence.

The victims argue that the FTCA’s “discretionary function” exception to governmental liability was wrongfully applied to TVA because the FTCA only applies to the U.S. Government.

Even though the TVA is technically a governmentally-created entity, the victims insist that because the TVA is distinctly commercial in nature and because Congress expressly stated that the TVA can “be sued,” the immunity of FTCA should not be extended to the TVA.

As the victims aptly note in their February 2018 Writ of Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court in which they ask the justices to hear their case:

“In the end, after applying the (misplaced) discretionary-function test, the lower courts took what should have been a ‘broad’ and ‘liberal’ amenability to suit — and inverted it to yield a nearly impregnable immunity. For, if the TVA cannot be sued for the workaday accident that it caused here, then it is hard to see what it could ever be sued for. Its notionally ‘broad’ suability will have all but vanished.”

I’ve been an electrocution lawyer for more than 35 years. During this time, the majority of my electrocution lawsuits have been against electric utility companies. These utility company lawsuits have involved people who have died or suffered serious electric shock injuries in what can only be described as appalling and very easily preventable ways.

The fact that electric utility companies may now have “nearly impregnable immunity” for their negligent ways puts all of us at greater risk. I will be watching this case and the Supreme Court’s decision on it closely.

Could government-owned electric utility companies be immunized from liability for injuries caused by poor infrastructure maintenance?

The Thacker case and the ruling that ultimately is handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court is very important for people who have been electrocuted or suffered electrical shock injuries as a result of government-owned utilities’ poorly maintained infrastructure.

That’s because if the justices uphold the broad grant of immunity that was afforded to the Tennessee Valley Authority for its negligent line repair work, then federal government-owned utilities everywhere will try to use it to shield themselves from liability.

This will be especially true when it comes to utilities being sued for the lives lost and injuries suffered due to their unwillingness to keep their electrical power infrastructures safe.

As I state on my page, “What happens when utility companies don’t maintain power infrastructures?”:

“Electrocution accidents involving power lines that hurt or kill people are often not really accidents at all. Many times, they occur because the utility company failed to inspect, maintain, and repair its power infrastructure.”

A win for the TVA in the Supreme Court will be a devastating loss that will make all of our communities less safe and will deny justice for electrocution and electrical shock injury victims of government-owned distribution and transmission networks.

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