For Utilities, High Voltage Equals High Litigation Risk

Risks of liability lawsuits; plus details on specific liability rulings in North Carolina

Between 1992 and 1998, nearly 3,000 workers died from job-related electrical injuries. During that same period, another 32,309 workers suffered serious, but non-fatal, electrical injuries. Each year, thousands more Americans are injured or killed by coming into contact with electrical energy in some form. These cases range from contacts between sailboat masts and power lines to arc-flash incidents and catastrophic electrical dust explosions.

Electrical injury cases present steep challenges to plaintiff attorneys. Electrical injuries are typically devastating and can involve severe burns, internal injuries, paraplegia, organ damage and severe neuropsychological injuries. In most electrical injury cases the stakes are very high, and plaintiffs can expect to draw seasoned and capable defense attorneys on the other side. Accordingly, attorneys would be well-advised to familiarize themselves with the unique legal landscape of the electrical injury case before filing suit. This piece is intended as a basic primer on the legal principles that typically come into play in electrical injury cases.

Common law principles

Recognizing the potentially devastating consequences of negligence in the distribution of electricity, the North Carolina courts have imposed a heightened duty of care on public utilities and others involved with the generation and transmission of electricity. Our courts have held on numerous occasions that electricity is an inherently dangerous commodity and that entities involved with its generation and distribution must exercise the highest degree of care and utmost foresight and diligence in conducting their business. This enhanced duty applies to any entity involved with the use of electricity, including public utilities, electrical contractors and business owners. The duty imposes on such entities a duty to exercise care in the construction, maintenance, inspection and operation of its lines and other equipment carrying electrical current.

It is important to recognize that North Carolina law does not impose strict liability on persons involved with the distribution of electricity. Rather, it is incumbent on the plaintiff, as in all negligence cases, to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant deviated from the applicable standard of care. For example, it has been held that a public utility will not be deemed negligent for failing to insulate or remove power lines, or construct warning signs regarding their presence, unless the lines are located in a place where members of the public are likely to come into contact with them.1

In determining whether a party was negligent in maintaining or operating its electrical system, the focus is whether it was reasonably foreseeable from the defendant's perspective that a person would come into contact with energized lines or components. Thus, where power lines were located 22 feet from a house and suspended 26 feet above the ground, it was not reasonably foreseeable that a construction worker would allow his ladder to come into contact with the energized lines.2

Further, as in most premises liability cases, where a plaintiff alleges a dangerous condition involving the distribution of electricity, she must demonstrate that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge of the condition.3

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