California Court of Appeal Reverses Judgment Holding Public Utilities Commission Has Exclusive Jurisdiction Over Personal Injury Claims from Effects of Stray Voltage

The California Court of Appeal recently addressed a jurisdictional issue relating to personal injury claims concerning stray voltage from or returning to electrical substations.  The issue on appeal was whether the Public Utilities Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s allegations of harm. The court relied upon the California Supreme Court’s three-prong test to determine whether the Public Utilities Commission had exclusive jurisdiction over the dispute.

In a fourth amended complaint, Kathy Seacrist and her son, John McDonald, brought claims of negligence, nuisance, trespass, strict liability/products liability, implied warranty of fitness, ultra hazardous activity, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against the Southern California Edison Company and the City of Palm Desert, as well as Does 5 through 100. Ms. Seacrist owned a house near an Edison substation in Indian Wells.  She and her son contended that stray electrical currents left the substation and caused them to suffer medical issues.

The trial court sustained Edison’s demurrer to the Seacrists’ Fourth Amended Complaint on the basis that the claims were within the exclusive jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission. Edison argued they had authority to regulate substation safety and all electrical distribution facilities. They also alleged that the Seacrists’ lawsuit interfered with PUC policy because it challenged safety regulations set forth by the PUC. In opposition, the Seacrists contended the PUC did not have exclusive jurisdiction because their claims focused on currents running through the ground and not overhead in powerlines. After a hearing, the trial court sustained the demurrer as to Edison, without leave to amend.

On appeal, the court stated a demurrer is to be sustained when the complaint does not state facts sufficient to state a cause of action or when the court does not have jurisdiction over the subject of the cause of action. The California Supreme Court has a three-prong test to determine whether a claim is within the PUC’s jurisdiction.  First, does the PUC have the authority to adopt a policy on the condition and the action, if any, utilities should take to minimize that risk?  Second, has the PUC exercised its authority to adopt a policy on the condition?  Third, would the lawsuit hinder or interfere with the policy?

Regarding whether precedents such as the San Diego Gas & Electric Co. v. Superior Court (1996) (13 Cal.4th 893, 923, 926, 935) case required the PUC to have exclusive jurisdiction, the court stated the facts fall outside this precedent because the complaint in the present case was centered on stray voltage from a substation, not voltage generated by power lines.  Furthermore, in the case at hand, the court held there was nothing to indicate that the PUC was investigating stray voltage or has otherwise addressed the issue.

The court reversed the judgment, holding that the PUC had exclusive jurisdiction over the personal injury claims.

The car accident attorneys at Sharifi Firm represent individuals throughout Southern California. We provide a free, confidential consultation and can be reached by calling 866-422-7222.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Holds Government Not Liable for Fatality Caused by Alleged Dangerous Condition of Public Property Due to Lack of Control, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, January 18, 2016

California Supreme Court Reverses Judgment for City Because Plaintiff Need Not Prove Dangerous Condition Caused Third-Party Conduct, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, November 20, 2015

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