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Texas Personal Injury News

Monday, February 22, 2016

Family Sues Utility for Wrongful Death after It Cuts Off Power to Oxygen Machine

Can a power company be liable for damages when it cuts off electricity for non-payment? 

Patients who depend on oxygen machines to survive require electricity 24/7. Tragically, when the Sam Houston Electric Company cut power to one of its subscribers for non-payment of $129.62, the result proved fatal. The family of the deceased is seeking in excess of $1 million in damages for wrongful death and gross negligence. Without power, the victim's oxygen concentrator could not work, nor could he call for help since his phone also required electricity.

Was the utility obligated to know about the customer's fragile health and keep power flowing regardless of payment? Sam Houston Electric Company claims in court filings that neither the victim nor his family notified the utility that he might need payment assistance. They consider the death an "unavoidable accident."

The victim's family, however, says the utility knew of both his disability and his financial predicament. In the past, the utility had given the victim up to four months to pay and social service agencies had sometimes been involved. Because of this history, according to the family, the victim was not worried about being one month in arrears.

According to the Public Utility Commission of Texas, utility customers suffering from a critical medical condition can sometimes prevent power shutoffs with preemptive steps. The customer can provide a utility with a written statement by a physician stating that electricity is essential for life support. The customer can also request a deferral of payment for up to 63 days. After payment, it can be renewed for another 63 days.

These rules may not apply to Sam Houston Electric Company, however, because it is a "cooperative," outside the Public Utility Commission's jurisdiction. As a cooperative, it sets its own rules. Attorneys for the victim say that he did not need to send a note from his physician because the cooperative did not require it. They claim he met their requirements by notifying them that he was disabled and dependent on medical equipment to sustain his life.

In addition, the family notes that power was cut off on a holiday. The 10-day termination notice the utility sent on November 17 promised not to end service on a holiday.

There may be grounds for holding the power company liable for foreseeable consequences of its negligence, and customers do have ways to avoid power cut-offs when their lives may be at risk. It remains to be seen whether the facts in this case are the basis of a winning wrongful death lawsuit.  This is why it is important to have a knowledgable personal injury attorney at your side.


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