A court will judicially notice that it is usually dangerous to a certain degree, that any line carrying an electric current is dangerous to a greater or lesser degree. Since the liability of an electric company, gas company, or steam company for personal injury is not that of an insurer, but is based on its negligence proximately causing the injury, the usual rule as to the burden of proof in actions for negligent injuries generally applies.
However, in the absence of direct evidence, a plaintiff should show the existence of such circumstances as would justify the inference that the injury was caused by the wrongful act of the defendant. Under certain circumstances, a presumption of constructive notice shall arise on the part of an electric company of defects in its lines, conduits, and appliances.
On the subject of negligence, the standard of care is that one maintaining wires carrying electricity is required to exercise the care that a person of ordinary prudence would exercise under the circumstances. Among the circumstances are the well known dangerous character of electricity and the inherent risk of injury to persons or property if it escapes. Hence, the care used must be commensurate with and proportionate to that danger[i].
Compliance by a government power authority with the National Electric Safety Code (NESC) does not exempt the power authority from liability in a negligence action. In actions against gas companies for injuries resulting from an escape or explosion of gas, the burden ordinarily rests upon the plaintiff to prove that the company has failed to exercise the proper degree of care to prevent the escape of gas[ii].
A gas company which does not own the pipes and appliances in a customer’s building and which exercises no control over them, but merely furnishes gas to be used therein, is not responsible for the condition in which such pipes and appliances are maintained, and consequently is not liable for injuries caused by a leak or defect therein, of which such company has no knowledge[iii]. The burden of going forward with the evidence, however, as distinguished from the ultimate burden of proof, shifts to the defendant where an explosion is shown to have been caused by gas from pipes and appliances under the defendant’s exclusive control.
In proving that damages were caused by the negligence of the gas company, the plaintiff is not required to exclude all possible causes, but may sustain the burden of proof by showing that a greater likelihood of a break in company’s pipe was due to one or more causes resulting from the negligence of the company.
Suits against electric companies resulting from injuries or death from electric wires, equipment, or appliances frequently afford an opportunity for the well-established doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Res ipsa loquitur refers to proof that a thing that caused the injury to plaintiff was actually under the control and management of the defendant and that the occurrence was such as that normally would not happen if those who had its control or management used adequate and appropriate care.
Before applying the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur, the following requirements should be fulfilled:
- the event should be one that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence;
- it should be caused by an agency which is within the exclusive control of the defendant;
- it should not be because of any voluntary action or contribution on the part of the plaintiff; and
- evidence as to the true explanation of the event should be more readily accessible to the defendant than the plaintiff.
The mere fact that an injury occurred from electricity, resulted from contact with live electric wires out of proper condition, would be sufficient under the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur to raise a prima facie presumption that the electric company having charge of such appliances was negligent in the performance of its duty.
The cases of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia surely apply the rule of res ipsa loquitur and hold when a person is is inflicted with an injury by contact with an electric wire at a place where he has a right to be, and where there should be good insulation, it is a case of negligence rendering the company prima facie liable. One case says that the fact of injury is conclusive evidence of want of insulation. This goes very far, on the idea that if safely insulated an accident could not happen from the wire. The rule is stringent. However, people must and do go about over the face of the earth, and those who use dangerous things must carry the burden, however heavy or costly, of so using them as to save life[iv].
The doctrine of res ipsa loquitur has been applied in some actions to recover for injuries from the escape of steam, but has been deemed inapplicable. The general rules of evidence regarding admissibility are applicable to actions to impose liability on electricity providers, gas, or steam, or to others who are liable for injuries resulting from the use of these energy sources.
A plaintiff in action for injury or damage resulting from the escape or explosion of gas has to establish his case by a preponderance of the evidence as in other civil cases. Direct proof of negligence of the gas company shall be established by circumstantial evidence.
[i] Polk v. Los Angeles, 26 Cal. 2d 519, 525 (Cal. 1945).
[ii] Parkinson v. California Co., 255 F.2d 265, 269 (10th Cir. Wyo. 1958).
[iii] Doxstater v. Northwest Cities Gas Co., 65 Idaho 814 (Idaho 1944).
[iv] Runyan v. Kanawha Water & Light Co., 68 W. Va. 609 (W. Va. 1911).