It can be difficult to prove a utility’s negligence in a Maine personal injury case. However, when a utility fails to follow its own standards and policies, its negligence becomes much easier to demonstrate. A 2010 case illustrates this point.
In the case, a worker was badly burned by electrical injuries when the sailboat mast he had been moving at a private marina connected with a Central Maine Power Company line. The marina rigged and unrigged its customer’s sailboat. The power line at issue ran along a road that divided the boatyard.
The power lines had been installed in 1951. In 1989, a marina operator went to the power company to ask it to raise the lines so that the company could move boats across the road. The power company told the marina that it would have to pay for the costs if it wanted the change.
Later the line was raised to permit a boat lift to pass underneath it. Despite raising it, a sail mast contacted the power line in 1998 when a boat was backed from the launch towards the road. Nobody was hurt in this incident.
In 2002, a boatyard employee was lowering a mast from a sailboat when the mast made contact with the power line, which was thirty feet off the ground. He was severely burned and suffered significant permanent injuries. He received worker’s compensation benefits, but also filed suit against the power company for negligence. His argument was that the power lines had been hung too low. The court made several findings. Among these findings were that the Public Utility Commission mandated a 45.5 foot vertical clearance along Route 166. The trial court found that the accident wouldn’t have happened if the power company had followed this requirement and that the power company was liable. The trial court specifically stated that it might reach another conclusion if the law permitted a vertical clearance of the amount that existed in that location — 30 feet.
The power company’s own policy was to keep its employees responsible for everyone’s safety, not just its employee’s safety. The power company provided some training to its employees, but did not offer training regarding the vertical clearance standards. Therefore, the power company’s employees in this case were unaware of the vertical clearance standards.
After making these findings, the trial court ruled that the power company had breached its duty of care with the thirty-foot vertical clearance since it knew that sailboat masts were being raised and lowered in that location and another mast had contacted a power line in 1998. It was also negligent because it had failed to meet its own safety policies regarding the 45.5 foot clearance and had not trained its employees on that policy.
The worker was awarded almost $5 million in damages. The power company moved for a new trial, but its motion was denied. The trial court noted that it had considered the company’s breach of statutory and regulatory duties in determining its negligence. It was foreseeable to the power company that workers from the marina would work within 10 feet of a power line.
The power company appealed. The appellate court noted that it wasn’t clear whether the trial court would have found negligence if there had been no rule violation. The power company argued that the trial court’s finding of a rule violation was in error. The power company claimed that the rule didn’t apply in this case.
The appellate court looked at the history of the rule. The Commission had set up minimum vertical clearance standards of 45.5 feet over “established boat ramps and rigging areas.” However, where there was no identified rigging area, the minimum vertical clearance was only 18.5 feet. Therefore the appellate court considered whether the actual area in which the accident occurred required the 18.5 foot clearance or the 45.5 foot clearance.
The appellate court stated that it usually defers to an administrative agency’s own interpretation of a rule unless the regulation in question plainly demands a different interpretation.
The appellate court concluded that the area in question was an area in which the public rigged sailboats. The power company argued that the marina was a private company and therefore the rule did not apply. But the appellate court noted that the private facility was used by the public and its status as a private company did not render the 45.5 foot rule inapplicable.
If you are injured or a loved one is hurt due to somebody else’s negligence, it’s important to consult an experienced personal injury attorney to help determine appropriate theories of liability under Maine law. At Briggs & Wholey, our knowledgeable attorneys are available to answer any questions you may have. To schedule a free consultation with an experienced advocate, please contact Briggs & Wholey, LLC through our website today.
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