Who may be liable for electrocution injuries and deaths?

Discussions of the hazards posted by electrical infrastructure are often only of interest to people who work in and around such hazards. There’s good reason for this. Electrocution is the sixth leading cause of workplace deaths in the US today. There have been significant efforts to educate workers on proper safety around electrical equipment and energized power lines, and fatalities are on the decline. But the number of electrical injuries has continued to increase in recent years, with a 35 percent spike year-over-year in 2017. But the danger of electrocution deaths is not limited to construction workers alone.

In April 2019, two Northern California teenagers were electrocuted by a metal bridge. They had been walking a dog with friends when the animal unexpectedly fell from the bridge into the water below. After diving into the water to save the dog, they attempted to climb out of the water by grabbing the bridge railing. But they didn’t realize that the railing had been energized by an electrical current.

A third boy quickly leapt into the water to free the two victims, who had been ‘frozen’ to the bridge railing, while another witness called 911. Tragically, the two teens were pronounced dead at a local hospital.

The families of the two victims filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Solano Irrigation District, the agency which owned the canal and the bridge spanning it. In their suit, they claimed that the SID’s negligence and safety oversights led to the conditions that ultimately took the lives of their sons.

When equipment is poorly maintained, or electrical safety standards are not adhered to, the lives of everyday people can be irreversibly affected. While there are numerous factors in determining liability for such cases, below are some of some examples of how the families of victims have held agencies, businesses, and property owners financially responsible for deaths and injuries caused by electrocution.

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City governments have faced lawsuits over unsafe practices, out of date policies, and negligence leading to electrical injuries and deaths.

In 2018, a 12-year-old boy in Augusta, Georgia died after being electrocuted while climbing over a fence at the Fleming Athletic Complex.  The boy’s family sued the city, ultimately settling for $1.5 million. The families of five other people injured in the incident settled for a total of nearly $600,000.

In their lawsuit, the boy’s family 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 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, which could have saved the boy’s life and prevented the injuries suffered by those who attempted to rescue him.

The park had a long history of electrical accidents. 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, and the city was forced to replace corroded grounding mechanisms at the park that same year.

In addition to city and county governments, utility companies may be liable for electrocution wrongful deaths and injuries.

In the wake of serious electrical accidents, the companies who own the infrastructure often find themselves the targets of litigation. Pacific Gas & Electric faces continued legal threats over 2018’s devastating wildfires, which were caused by PG&E’s faulty electrical equipment, and the company may also face criminal charges as well. But while large-scale disasters and the resulting settlements often steal headlines, utility companies have also often been taken to court for smaller, individual accidents.

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 Texas power company CenterPoint 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.

Similar infrastructure challenges are being faced by Commonwealth Edison, the largest electric utility in the state of Illinois. After a 2016 accidental electrocution killed one worker and severely injured another, the utility attempted to blame the victims three years after the fact. However, engineers for ComEd admitted in depositions that a number of insulators and guy-wires throughout the region may have been improperly installed in violation of federal and state guidelines, and left that way for decades.

In California, entertainment venues have been held liable for electrocution deaths.

In some states, the owners of venues can be held liable for deaths and injuries caused by electrical accidents. This requires demonstrating that a venue operator 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 his 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 victims after the survivor’s 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 attendees of the danger.

Landlords may be held liable for electrocution deaths that occur on their property

Property owners and landlords can also be sued for accidents and deaths that occur on their properties, whether they be single-family residences or apartment complexes.

The owners of the Villa Margaritas apartments in Fresno settled a wrongful death lawsuit with a former tenant in August 2019, two years after the death of a 12-year-old boy on the property. The boy had been electrocuted by a chain link fence while trying to retrieve a ball.

The cause of his death was identified as an exposed live wire that was in direct contact with the fence, causing it to become energized. The wire in question was meant to power a nearby security camera. The lawsuit alleged that the handyman who performed the electrical work was not properly licensed. The work was never inspected by the city, and the apartment complex had failed to procure necessary permits. It is likely that had an inspector visited the complex, the faulty wiring may have been identified much sooner.

The case had been scheduled for trial in September 2019, but the victim’s mother and the defendants agreed to settle for $5.7 million.

There are stringent safety standards that electrical equipment and maintenance workers must follow, and liability laws provide a means for holding property owners accountable for their actions and negligence. When safety requirements and building codes are ignored, all too often the results are fatal. A 2019 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information estimated that 1,000 deaths each year are caused by electricity. Most electrical injuries occur in workplace settings, but 20% of electrical injuries are suffered by children.

While settlements and civil lawsuits can never begin to make the families of electrocution victims whole, they provide a means for these families to begin to rebuild their lives, while also motivating those who could prevent such deaths to work proactively to prevent future injuries and deaths.

This blog is not meant to dispense legal advice and is not a comprehensive review of the facts, the law, this topic or cases related to the topic.

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