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Duties and Liabilities of Electric Companies

The electric cooperative derives it powers from the act which authorized the creation of the cooperative.  Generally, a private corporation that furnishes electricity to a municipality or its inhabitants is manifestly a public service or public utility corporation.  Therefore, it shall be subject to the law applicable to corporations or companies engaged in public service.

The liability of electric companies for damage or injury is not governed by the principles of contracts.  Generally, in the injury cases related to transmitting, maintaining or accidentally contacting electrical wires, the doctrine of strict products liability is not applicable.  However, strict liability shall apply in the case of “stray” voltage that is accidentally discharged into the ground.

The duty owed by electric companies with respect to their transmission lines is determined according to the negligence test of foreseeability.  A failure to anticipate and guard against a happening which would not have arisen unless under some exceptional circumstances shall not be deemed negligence.

Some states have adopted the National Electric Safety Code and have been given the force of law.  In ascertaining whether an electric company has met the degree of care required, the methods customarily used in the industry should be considered.  An electric company cannot evade responsibility for nuisance created by it, by way of subcontracting the performance of its obligations[i].

Generally, an employer is not liable for the negligence of his/her independent contractor or the latter’s servants.  If the supplier of electricity undertakes to install wiring, parts of the wiring system, or electrical appliances, it is responsible for constructive knowledge of defects or insufficiencies which present potential hazards[ii].

An employer of an independent contractor is not liable for injuries suffered by that independent contractor’s employee.  Exceptions to this rule include when the power company exercises a controlling and pervasive role over the independent contractor’s work, or the power company assumes affirmative safety duties, or when the power company is negligent in hiring an unskilled or incompetent contractor.

A utility company has a duty to insulate its lines in places where the general public comes into contact with them, but not where the only people who come into contact with them are utility employees or others charged with knowledge of necessary safety precautions[iii].  Usually, an owner or occupant of land who directly or by implication invites or induces others to go upon his or her premises owes to such persons a duty to have the premises in a reasonably safe condition and to give warning of latent or concealed perils.  It is a general rule that an occupant of premises owes no duty to trespassers or licensees other than to do them no willful, wanton, or reckless harm.

In an action for injury from electricity, the question whether the injured person was guilty of contributory negligence is usually left to the consideration of the jury.  A person’s intentional conduct in exposing him or herself to electricity can supersede any alleged negligence or wantonness of the power company, thus precluding liability.  The law imposes upon a person sui juris, the obligation to use ordinary care for his or her own protection and the degree of such care should be commensurate with the danger to be avoided.

As a general rule, a person has a legal duty to avoid open and obvious dangers.  This does not mean that a person is guilty of contributory negligence as a matter of law if the person contacts a known electrical wire regardless of the circumstances and regardless of any precautions he or she may have taken to avoid the mishap[iv].

An electric company that allows a wire to sag down over a highway and thereby causes injury to a person using the highway free from contributory negligence, is liable to the person injured[v].  It is the ongoing duty of the electrical utility to maintain its wires over streets and highways in such a manner that they will not become dangerous to persons and property.

One who maintains a high voltage electric line at places where people are reasonably expected to go for work, business, or pleasure has a duty to guard against contact by insulating the wires or removing them to a place where people will not come in contact with them[vi].  According to the statutes, an electric company is required to bury cable underground or to raise transmission lines to a specific height.

In the absence of ownership or a duty to inspect and maintain an electric system, an electric company shall not be held liable for injuries occasioned by the negligent maintenance of the system.  Proper care shall be taken to insulate dangerous wires in or near trees to prevent the escape of high electrical currents upon the property of the customers or to warn them about such safeguarding measures.

Statutes impose the duty on an owner of electric wires or distributor of electricity to trim or maintain a certain clearance between trees and wires .  In some cases involving injuries to a child due to contact with wires running through trees, the attractive-nuisance doctrine is applicable.

The standard of care applicable to a child’s conduct in injuries by electric wires or electrical appliances is the care which is ordinarily exercised by children of the same age, capacity, discretion, knowledge, and experience under similar circumstances.  An electric company is required to anticipate all eventualities that may result in the falling of a tree or its limb and thereby striking its wires.

[i] Hyde Park Thomson-Houston Electric Light Co. v. Porter, 167 Ill. 276 (Ill. 1897).

[ii] Chambers v. Buettner, 295 Ala. 8, 11 (Ala. 1975).

[iii] Butler v. City of Peru, 733 N.E.2d 912 (Ind. 2000).

[iv] Tyburski v. Stewart, 694 S.E.2d 422, 424 (N.C. Ct. App. 2010).

[v] State use of Hoffman v. Potomac Edison Co., 166 Md. 138 (Md. 1934).

[vi] Hoffman v. Union Elec. Co., 176 S.W.3d 706, 709 (Mo. 2005).

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