California Court of Appeals Says PG&E Failure to Trim Trees Case Can Move Forward

untitled-1418237-mThe California Court of Appeals rendered an interesting decision in a recent case, Mata v. Pacific Gas & Electric Co., 224 Cal. App. 4th 309 (2014), regarding the potential liability of a utilities company on the theory of premises liability for allegedly negligently failing to trim trees near power lines adequately.

In the case, the plaintiffs were the heirs of a decedent who was trimming a redwood tree when he was electrocuted by a high voltage power line of the defendants. The vegetation in the area had reportedly been trimmed in accordance with PG&E’s relevant requirements, but the plaintiffs claimed that those levels were insufficient to ensure proper safety.

Premises liability lawsuits are based on the fact that property owners are required to maintain their property at a certain level of safety. The particular level of safety depends upon to whom the duty is owed, and also upon the nature of the potential hazard.

The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on the theory that the claims were precluded by prior case law, which dealt with the inability for the defendants to trim the trees beyond the minimal requirements, stemming from an easement case.

The claims here were based on the allegation that the defendants “negligently, carelessly, recklessly… failed to inspect the power lines and trees in the vicinity of the power lines, and failed to maintain an adequate clearance of the power lines… [and knew or had reason to know that] the conditions constituted a dangerous condition and unreasonable risk of harm,” and further that the danger would not have been apparent to the decedent. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss, believing that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case.

The court of appeals reviewed the relevant procedural law and found that a suit on these bases was not precluded, and further that PG&E does have “a duty to make the wires safe under all the exigencies created by the surrounding circumstances.”

However, the court was clear in pointing out that its decision was not based upon a determination of the underlying allegations of negligence, but instead that the trial court has proper jurisdiction to hear the case, as with any other negligence claim arising under the same theories of law.

Thus, the decision, precluding a judgment in the matter, was reversed and remanded in order for the lower court to render a decision.

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