For Utilities, High Voltage Equals High Litigation Risk

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

Review of the case law suggests that our courts have been somewhat forgiving in assessing the conduct of plaintiffs in electrical injury cases. For example, it has been held that a crane operator was not contributorily negligent as a matter of law where the defendant assured the crane operator that power lines would be de-energized prior to commencement of a project, defendant failed to de-energize the lines, and the worker's crane subsequently came into contact with those lines.4

Similarly, a worker was held to be free of contributory negligence where a project owner knew that a substation had been energized but failed to inform the plaintiff of that fact, and the plaintiff had no reason to presume that any portion of the substation would be energized prior to its completion.5

Consistent with general negligence law, many other cases have held that the issue of contributory negligence is usually reserved for determination by the jury.6

The categories of potential defendants are expansive. Most obviously, public utilities, municipalities,7 electric membership corporations and other companies owning and operating electrical distribution and transmission systems can be held liable for negligent operation of power lines, substations, transformers and other components. Property owners may also be held liable for failing to protect visitors from energized electrical lines and equipment that are located on their property.8

Codes, rules and regulations

In addition to the unusually rich and well-developed common law established by the North Carolina courts, numerous codes, statutes, rules and regulations come into play in an electrical injury case. The following list is not exhaustive, but provides a useful starting point:

National Electrical Safety Code: The NESC is published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. The IEEE is composed largely of industry professionals and consulting engineers whose primary business is providing engineering services to public utilities and other entities involved with the ownership and operation of electrical distribution systems. The NESC establishes very precise requirements for such things as line clearances, tree trimming around power lines and methods for de-energizing equipment prior to performing work on it. The NESC will be the central focus in most electrical injury cases that involve contact with power lines, substation injuries and other cases that involve complex electrical equipment and installations.

National Electrical Code: The National Electrical Code is published by the National Fire Protection Association. The NEC addresses nuts-and-bolts electrical issues such as methods for wiring electrical systems, maintenance of electrical equipment, shielding of energized equipment in dusty industrial environments, and electrical requirements for electric-operated devices, including signs, cranes, elevators, X-ray equipment and industrial machinery. The NEC tends to have greater applicability to industrial settings than it does to electrical accidents that involve power lines, substations or other large electrical facilities.

North Carolina Overhead High-Voltage Line Safety Act: In 1995 the General Assembly enacted the Overhead High-Voltage Line Safety Act.9 The act prescribes various requirements for the use and operation of overhead power lines. It was intended to "promote the safety and protection of persons engaged in work in the vicinity of high-voltage overhead lines. " The act forbids certain practices, such as requiring workers to perform work in close proximity to energized lines and using certain equipment in the vicinity of power lines, and establishes requirements as to the posting of warning signs when performing work on or near power lines, and mandatory notification of power line owners prior to performing work on or near their lines. Strangely, the act also provides that violations of its provisions do not give rise to a statutory cause of action and shall not constitute negligence or contributory negligence. It is a curious piece of legislation, to say the least.