Electrocution is the second leading cause of death in the construction industry, and electrical injuries suffered at work or at home can cause significant harm and even disability. Although electricity may leave telltale marks as it escapes its intended path and injures a person, tracing the cause of the injury back to responsible parties and holding them liable requires careful, informed investigation and legal work.
Potentially lethal electrical currents flow through the power lines that make up all electrical transmission and distribution systems. Clients injured by that current may have a claim against the public utility, manufacturers of any product involved in the injury, a property owner, a general contractor, or fellow contractors on a construction site. Clients injured by electricity within a building or by an electrical appliance may have a claim against the building owner or a manufacturer, distributor, or seller of the product.
Ownership and Control
It is important to know which side of the meter the electricity was on when it escaped its path and injured your client. After electricity in the transmission and distribution system flows through a property owner’s electric meter, the property owner generally becomes responsible for escape of that electricity. Design and construction of electrical systems on the property owner’s side of the meter are governed by the National Electrical Code (NEC). Design and construction of electrical systems on the public utility’s side of the meter are governed by the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC). A property owner may be liable for faulty electrical systems on his or her side of the meter under a theory of premises liability. A public utility may be liable for faulty electrical systems on its side of the meter under a theory of premises liability as the owner of the transmission poles and line, or under theories of negligence based on its control of the electricity, the line, or the equipment involved.
On the public utility’s side of the meter, ownership of the electricity may not be obvious. Public utility A, which owns the transmission poles and lines, may contract with utility B to transmit utility B’s electricity in bulk from point to point along A’s lines. Unexpectedly high amounts of electricity flowing through utility A’s lines could be due to utility B’s actions in creating unusual operating conditions. Utilities have control over the flow of electricity through transmission lines by opening and closing switches. Other factors also may have an effect on the direction, intensity and path of electricity, including a difference in phase or voltage at various points in the transmission system, the strength of power generating sources that supply electricity to the system, the amount of demand at any given point, and line outages.
Aside from legal ownership, a critical question is which utility has operational control of the transmission line, equipment, or electricity involved in the injury. The NESC may hold the utility with operational control responsible. In Maine, the NESC standards have been adopted and codified as law.
In addition to NESC standards, most public utilities are subject to Rural Utilities Standards promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture. These standards provide detailed guidance in the design, construction, and operation of electrical transmission and distribution systems. For instance, Rural Utility Standard 202-1 provides that switches on transmission lines above 25kV must be equipped with certain insulating components and must have the capacity to interrupt current.
Electrical utilities are also required to protect against unintended escape of electricity from a transmission line. Breakers throughout a transmission system generally should be equipped with relays, or computers, programmed to monitor conditions on a transmission line and trip a breaker to shut off the flow of current through the line in the presence of certain conditions. If a client is injured by electricity that has been escaping from a transmission line for some period of time, a properly programmed relay might have prevented the injury. Even when a properly programmed relay cannot prevent an injury, it may still reduce the injury because it can shut off current in the line quickly enough to reduce the amount of time that electricity flows through a person.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards generally apply to consumer products that use electricity. As with any products liability case, an attorney should work closely with an expert to understand which ANSI standards apply and whether the risk posed by a product’s design outweighs its benefits.
On a construction site or other job site, OSHA standards can provide evidence of how the accident should have been prevented. Whenever work is performed near a live electrical line, for instance painting near an electrical line as it comes into a house, the line should either be de-energized or protected. A rubber sleeve around the line can protect against accidental contact with the live line. The public utility must provide this service on request.
Numerous laws, regulations, and industry standards exist to protect workers and the public from electrical hazards. Safety can depend on the actions of utilities far removed from the site and on unseen factors. When someone suffers an electrical injury, careful and informed work is necessary to identify responsible parties and hold them accountable. At Gideon Asen, we are currently handling a number of cases involving electrocution death and significant electrical injuries. We work with the top national experts who assist in evaluating and prosecuting these cases. If you have a question involving an electrical case, we would be happy to speak with you.