For Utilities, High Voltage Equals High Litigation Risk

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


National Fire Protection Association codes and standards: The NFPA has promulgated numerous industry codes in addition to the NEC that frequently come into play in electrical injury cases. These include NFPA 70E (Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace), NFPA 70B (Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance), NFPA 484 (Standard for Combustible Metals, Metal Powders and Metal Dusts), and NFPA 1 (Fire Prevention Code).

Federal regulations: Federal labor and safety regulations also establish numerous requirements upon entities involved with the ownership, operation and maintenance of electrical systems and equipment. Some of the most relevant regulations can be found at 29 CFR 1910.269 (governing electric power generation, transmission, and distribution systems and equipment); 29 CFR 1910.302 to 1910.308 (design safety standards for electrical systems); and 29 CFR 1910.331 to 1910.335 (electrical safety-related work practices standards). The most frequently invoked subjects addressed in these regulations include methods for de-energizing equipment, use of lockout-tagout procedures to ensure equipment remains de-energized, use of insulating protective equipment, and maintaining safe distances from energized parts.

North Carolina Administrative Code and municipal codes: Provisions of the North Carolina Administrative Code adopt by reference portions of the NESC. For example, R8-26 of the NCAC establishes that the NESC shall apply to all public utilities operating within the state of North Carolina. Similarly, 13 NCAC 15 .0206 adopts by reference all provisions of the National Electrical Code. Provisions of other NFPA codes and standards are adopted by reference in other sections of the North Carolina Administrative Code. It is also critical to review applicable municipal codes. For example, in a recent case involving the City of New Bern, we learned that the city electrical department, which is not a public utility, had adopted and incorporated by reference the entire NESC. In conducting this analysis, counsel should be mindful of the fact that violations of applicable code provisions may support a claim for negligence per se. Even when it does not, violation of an applicable standard should constitute some evidence of negligence.

Conclusion

It would be a mistake to undertake a serious electrical injury case without possessing at least a conversational familiarity with the basic legal principles that apply in such cases. Thankfully, the Internet, partnership with a capable electrical expert, and a modest cache of intellectual curiosity will go a considerable distance toward getting you up to speed.

Footnotes

1. Mintz v. Town of Murphy, 69 S.E.2d 849, 235 N.C. 304 (1952).#

2. Sweat v. Brunswick Elec. Membership Corp., 133 N.C. App. 63, 514 S.E.2d 526 (1999).#

3. Campbell v. City of High Point, 144 N.C. App. 493, 551 S.E.2d 443, affirmed, 354 N.C. 566, 557 S.E.2d 529 (2001).#

4. Jones v. Douglas Aircraft Co., 251 N.C. 832, 112 S.E.2d 257 (1960).#

5. Whaley v. White Consolidated Industries, Inc., 144 N.C. App. 88, 548 S.E.2d 177, rev. denied, 354 N.C. 229, 555 S.E.2d 277 (2001).#

6. Martishius v. Carolco Studios, Inc., 142 N.C. App. 216, 542 S.E.2d 303, affirmed, 355 N.C. 465, 562 S.E.2d 887 (2002).#

7. It has been routinely held that municipalities that operate electrical distribution systems are engaged in a proprietary function to which the defense of governmental immunity does not apply. See Dale v. City of Morganton, 270 N.C. 567, 155 S.E.2d 136 (1967).#

8. See Martishius, infra.#

9. N.C. Gen. Stat. Sect. 95-229.5 et seq.#

Editor's note: Mark McGrath is a partner with the firm of Jensen McGrath Podgorny in Research Triangle Park, where he focuses his practice on representing plaintiffs in catastrophic injury cases, including cases arising from nursing home neglect and abuse, electrical injuries, inadequate security, medical malpractice and third-party workplace injuries. He may be reached at mark@jmpattorneys.com