COA – A live power line on the ground is more dangerous than one in the air making an injury caused by a downed line more foreseeable

An injury to a person is far more foreseeable when a live power line is on the ground rather than in the air, thus creating a genuine issue of material fact on whether a utility company owed the injured person a duty of care, held the Michigan Court of Appeals in In re Estate of Catherine Dawn Skidmore v Consumers Energy Company, No. 323757.

On an evening in July of 2011, Ralph Skidmore, Jr. and his wife Catherine Skidmore looked out their window and saw sparks coming from a neighbor’s van across the street. Catherine was frantic and ran across the street to tell the neighbor about his van because she thought it might explode. The van caught fire from a power line that had fallen across the neighbor’s yard and onto the vehicle. As she ran across the dark yard, the downed live power line wrapped around Catherine’s leg and she died from her injuries. Catherine’s estate filed suit against Consumers Energy Company (“Consumers”) for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Consumers filed a motion for summary disposition arguing that Catherine’s actions were not reasonably foreseeable. At the hearing on the motion, the neighbor testified that the incident involving Catherine was the second time the power line had fallen in his yard. He also told Consumers that the trees needed to be trimmed around the power line. After testimony, the trial court determined that Catherine’s actions were not reasonable and, therefore, Consumers did not owe her a duty of care. The estate appealed.

The Court of Appeals held that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Catherine acted reasonably and that the trial court erred in granting Consumers’ motion for summary disposition. The Court noted that the duty owed by a power company is to reasonably inspect and repair wires in order to discover and remedy hazards. This duty does not extend to protecting against every possible contact with power lines. The Court found that the question in this case was whether it was reasonably foreseeable that failing to reasonably inspect the power lines would result in a dangerous situation to Catherine. According to the Court, “[a]n injury due to a live power line on the ground is far more foreseeable than an injury due to a power line in the air.” Here, the area surrounding the power line was residential and it is foreseeable that people using the area would be at risk if the power line fell. The Court concluded that it was reasonably foreseeable that Catherine’s injuries could come from Consumer’s failing to maintain the power line in the neighborhood; therefore, creating a genuine issue of material fact. Accordingly, the Court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings.