Who may be liable for electrical infrastructure deaths?

In April 2019, two teenagers in Northern California died after being electrocuted by an energized metal bridge, leaving behind grieving family, and questions over who is responsible for the accident: the county, the people responsible for maintaining the bridge itself, or the owners of the electrical infrastructure?

The boys were walking with a dog over a span crossing an irrigation canal, when the dog unexpectedly fell into the canal. According to witnesses, the teens jumped into the canal to rescue the dog from the fast-flowing water. But as they tried to climb out of the canal, they grabbed onto a bridge rail with electrical current flowing through it, becoming paralyzed by the electrical shock and unable to let go. Another boy walking with the victims jumped into the canal to free them, while another witness in the group used her cell phone to call 911. The two victims were pronounced dead at a local hospital.

While local sheriffs will work to determine how the bridge could have become a deadly hazard, a direct external cause has yet to be named. But similar cases throughout the US involving electrocution give an idea of how different parties may be held liable for injuries or wrongful deaths.

This image of the I Street bridge in Sacramento, California shows power lines connecting over the span, a potential danger and liability should there be faults with the equipment.

City governments can potentially be held liable due to unsafe practices, out of date policies, or negligence.

Lawsuits against local governments regarding unsafe conditions are not uncommon. San Francisco is wrestling with crumbling infrastructure, while San Diego has faced a barrage of lawsuits for slip and fall injury accidents caused by unsafe sidewalks.

In 2018, a 12-year-old boy in Augusta, Georgia died after being electrocuted by a fence at the Fleming Athletic Complex. After the accident, the victim’s family sent a legal notice to Augusta city officials stating their intention to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city for gross negligence.

The notice stated that the dangerous conditions were known to the city before the fatal accident. A team of independent experts and investigators hired by the family also recently concluded that the lack of an equipment grounding conductor contributed to the accident. According to local regulations and the National Electric Code, this conductor was a required part of a system that would trigger a power outage if someone were electrocuted, limiting the severity of resulting injuries.

Several electrical shock injuries occurred at the park between 1991 and 2019, with one 1991 incident leading to a lawsuit against both the city and the county. It was found that the electrical systems were poorly installed, with forcing the park to replace corroded grounding mechanisms in 1991.

Utilities can be held liable for electrocution wrongful deaths and injuries

In the wake of serious electrical accidents, the companies who own the infrastructure often find themselves targets for litigation. West Coast utility Pacific Gas & Electric faces continued legal threats over 2018’s devastating wildfires. However, these companies can also be taken to court for smaller, individual accidents.

Texas utility CenterPoint was named in a May 2018 electrocution wrongful death lawsuit. In the wake of 2017’s devastating Hurricane Harvey, a 25-year-old Texan resident was wading through the flood waters in a Harris County neighborhood with his family when he was suddenly electrocuted. The victim had unknowingly strayed close to a light post that was submerged in water and still powered.

In the lawsuit, the victim’s family claims that the power company should have been prepared and able to shut down power in flood-affected areas. Also named in the lawsuit was Antwine Electric, the company that installed the light fixture, and the fixture’s manufacturer, TE Connectivity.

CenterPoint has been the subject of multiple lawsuits between 2013 and 2018, including another case in Spring, Texas in 2013. The company settled out of court for an undisclosed amount after two children were electrocuted by a loose guy-wire. The company was forced to reinspect more than 200,000 guy-wires for possible issues.

In California, venues and property owners can also be held liable for electrocution wrongful deaths.

Utility companies face lawsuits for the damage, injuries, and deaths caused by their equipment. But in some states, the owners of a property or a venue can be held liable for electrocution wrongful deaths, if it can be demonstrated that they failed to take action to protect the public from the danger, or failed to adequately address the issue.

A Fresno, California resident and his wife were electrocuted at the Cherry Avenue Auction in 2013. The couple were raising a 28-foot banner pole when it contacted a power line. The husband died of his injuries, while the wife survived.

Five years after the accident, the victim’s survivors successfully sued the venue’s owners for $12.25 million. The venue owners claimed that the danger should have been self-evident, but the jury sided with the wife after her testimony revealed that there was no way for her or her late husband to see the power line due to visual obstructions. Her lawyers argued that the venue owners should have been aware that 20 of the auction’s 800 booth spaces were directly below a power line, and should have warned all attendees of the danger.

Electrocution is considered one of the four deadliest hazards in the workplace, and a study updated in 2019 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests that roughly 1,000 deaths each year are caused by electricity. There are stringent safety standards that electrical equipment and maintenance workers must follow, and there are premises liability laws that place certain responsibilities on property owners. When these requirements are ignored, the dangers can prove fatal to victims, and costly to those who could have prevented the situation.

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