Electrocution in a Rental Property Backyard: Landlord or Utility at Fault?

TASA ID: 1006

Case Scenario:           Electrocution in a Rental Property Backyard: Landlord or Utility at Fault?

Expert's Job Assignment:  To act on behalf of the widow's lawsuit

Case Synopsis:

The deceased was doing gardening work in the backyard of the property he was renting. He came into contact with a set of wires leading from the house at that address to some ancillary sheds and barns. These wires were originally supported by a home-made wooden pole structure that had fallen and allowed the wires to sag and lie on the ground. These wires were energized at 120 volts ac. The contact with these wires caused his death.

Expert Analysis

1. I visited the site, and made the following observations:

a) In order to enter the basement to gain access to the meter, the utility's meter reader would have had to go to the front door of the house to announce himself and get permission to enter the basement of the house. This would have put him within fifty feet of the location of the fatality and within less than fifty feet of the obviously visible and dangerous sagging wire. According to a provided sketch, the wire in front of the shed was sagging due to the "broken 10' pole" that was 67 feet from the corner of the house. This route would have put the meter reader within 50 feet of the front of the shed where the wire was visibly sagging down.

b) The deceased was lying between the broken pole and the house, according to the police photographs that were supplied to me. This pole had broken and had fallen down; thus the wire was sagging in front of the shed and lying on the ground where the pole should have been. Even if the meter reader in each instance had entered the house without asking permission, he would have had to drive up the driveway to the rear door. This would have put him about 100 feet from the front of the shed, where the sagging wires were very visible as I saw during my visit. Pictures of the scene were supplied to me and were purported to be taken by the police department at the scene. They show the front of the shed where the wiring is traversing from the pole on top of the small shed to the broken pole. This sagging wire was clearly visible to anyone approaching the house.

2. By its own documents the utility implies that it will comply with both the National Electrical Code and the National Electrical safety Code. As a utility, it is bound to comply with these two codes, in the same manner as they are requiring their customers to comply.

a) The utility's "Tariff for Electric Service," Section 8.2, requires that "iring installed on the customer's premises must conform to all requirements of governmental authorities and to the regulations set forth in the current edition of the National Electrical Code."

b) Their "Information and Requirements for Electrical Service," Chapter 1, Section 3, "Definition of Terms," subsection 3.1 defines:

  • i) "Approved" as including meeting the requirements of the "National Electrical Safety Code"; and
  • ii) "Premises" as "Refers to a tract of land including any buildings, appurtenances and improvements thereon or any part thereof."

c) In the same document as #2)b) above, in Chapter 6, Section 1, subsection 1.1 requires: "Wiring installed on the customer's premises must conform to all requirements and regulations set forth in the current editions of the National Electrical Code and the National Electrical Safety Code. Authorities having jurisdiction may have additional requirements that must be met in order to obtain a Certificate of Approval (Cut-in Card)."

 3) The National Electrical Code generally defines the requirements of installations inside buildings.

 a) The picture of the distribution panel and adjacent wiring shows two violations of the National electrical code that the meter reader(s) should have reported.

  • i) The small fuse panel above the larger fuse panel has its door open. Panel doors should be closed to prevent the danger from exposed energized electrical parts.
  • ii) The wiring is not adequately secured. Section 300.11 (A) of the National Electrical Code, "Secured in Place" states: "Raceways, cable assemblies....shall be securely fastened in place." The wires in this photo are obviously not "secured in place."

4. The National Electrical Safety Code is an industry standard that generally defines the requirements for electrical installations outside buildings. It states in Section #010, "Purpose" that "These rules contain the basic provisions that are considered necessary for the safety of employees and the public under the specified conditions." (Underlining by me.)

a) The National Electrical Safety Code, Section #012-A states: "All electric supply and communication lines and equipment shall be designed, operated, and maintained to meet the requirements of these rules."

b) The National Electrical Safety Code, Section #420-A is entitled "Personal General Provisions." It states in subsection 1: "Employees shall carefully read and study the safety rules, and may be called upon at any time to show their knowledge of the rules."

c) The National Electrical Safety Code, Section #420-C is entitled "Safeguarding Oneself and Others." It states in subsection 2: "Employees shall report promptly to the proper authority any of the following:

Line or equipment defects such as abnormally sagging wires, broken insulators, broken poles, or lamp supports."

5. The responses of a utility company inspector are surprising in that they do not reflect the element of safety consciousness that I would expect of a utility company's representative, especially one who has had the practical "in-the-field" experience that this person had.

a) His comments in the case of bare wires being anywhere near the ground on a customer's premises did not show enough concern for the safety of the public. Bare wires are NEVER safe unless tested to be safe, or unless treated as if they are energized by a qualified person. It is, to me, evidence of the lack of training in the elements of safety for a supervisor employed by an electric utility.

b) He stated that he would have "...told the homeowner...". According to the National Electrical Safety Code he was responsible to report this to "The proper authority." This clearly would be the utility's safety department. Again, this is evidence of the lack of training by the utility.

c) He states that he saw no wires that were run incorrectly. However, his photo clearly shows internal wiring near the meter that violates the National Electrical Code in the way that it is unsupported, as referenced above in item 3)a). This is more evidence of poor training by the utility.

d) He further claimed that because of the bushes and trees that the wires on the ground were not visible. However, his photos showed that both the sagging wires and those on the ground were clearly visible

6. Since:

  • a) The violations of both the National Electrical Code and the National Electrical Safety Code had been in evidence for a number of years; and
  • b) The meter reader(s), as employees of the utility, had access to the location for a repeated number of instances; and
  • c) By industry standards the meter reader(s), as employees of the utility, were supposed to report such violations of applicable codes and standards in order to protect the safety of the public; and
  • d) The meter reader(s), as employees of the utility, failed to report the violations; and
  • e) The utility was bound by industry codes and standards to ensure that such codes and standards were upheld; and
  • f) Since both the meter reader(s) and a member of middle management, such as the above deponent, had not been sufficiently trained in the proper elements of electrical safety; thus
  • g) It is my opinion that the utility bears responsibility for this accidental death.

Expert Opinion and Results

There were two responsible parties, in that had either one done the proper thing, this accident would not have happened.  These parties are:

  1. The property owner,  Had he maintained the property properly, the offending wire would have been relocated to a proper support pole, and the danger would not have existed.  Since the responsibility of this party had been dealt within another jurisdiction, I did not address it.
  2. The utility   According to the Investigating Service interview with another tenant of the property, this wire had been on the ground since 2002, when this other tenant moved in.  Thus, it was on the ground for over 2 years prior to the accident.  The tenants had complained to the owner about it, but he had never done anything to remedy the situation.  However the meter reader had to come in direct view of this dangerous, sagging wire whenever the meter was read.  Since it was read every month, this had to have occurred at least twenty-four times prior to the accidental death.  It is my opinion that each meter reader was bound by the utility's rules to have acted in conformance with the National Electrical Code and the National Electrical Safety Code.  Thus the meter reader(s) had the responsibility to report such a dangerous condition.  Had this reporting been done, the utility should have forced the remediation to have been done, and the accidental death would not have occurred.

The utility was found at fault and paid the court's prescribed penalty.

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA.

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