Utility v. Marina: Who Pays for Injuries Resulting from Contact with High-Voltage Electric Lines?

When a marina employee is electrocuted and severely injured because the boat mast he held contacted a high-voltage electric line, who ultimately bears the cost of compensating the employee for his injuries? The Maine Supreme Judicial Court (sitting as the “Law Court”) recently addressed that question and found that, under Maine law, the marina/employer may ultimately bear the cost, rather than the utility that owns the power line. Moreover, the employer may bear the cost even if the utility is negligent.

While working at Devereux Marine, Bryan Smith was electrocuted when the boat mast he was lowering contacted a power line owned by Central Maine Power Company (“CMP”). Bryan was badly burned and sustained permanent injuries. Following a trial, the lower court required CMP to pay Bryan over $6 million in damages (including interest) because, among other reasons, the vertical clearance of the CMP line failed to comply with the rules of the Maine Public Utilities Commission. CMP appealed that decision to the Law Court, and the Law Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. Smith v. Cent. Me. Power Co., 2010 ME 9, 988 A.2d 968. CMP paid the judgment. However, that was not the end of the story.

CMP then sought indemnification from Devereux based on Maine’s Overhead High-Voltage Line Safety Act, 35-A M.R.S.A. §§ 751-761 (the “Act”). Maine’s Business Court initially addressed CMP’s indemnification claim. The Business Court decided that the Act did not create a right to indemnification (only a right of contribution), and that CMP would not prevail on a claim for contribution. CMP appealed again.

In a thorough decision that reviewed not only Maine’s Act, but similar statutes across the U.S., the Law Court flipped the Business Court. Cent. Me. Power Co. v. Devereux Marine, Inc., 2013 ME 37, — A.3d —.The Law Court held that full indemnification from an employer is required under the Act if “(1) an employee is injured after bringing materials into contact with an overhead high-voltage power line, (2) the employer is determined to have violated the Act, and (3) the owner of the high-voltage line becomes liable to the employee.” Id. ¶ 2. This is true regardless of whether the utility may be negligent because the Act requires the utility to be reimbursed for “all damages,” and because the Act trumped Maine’s comparative fault statute. The Law Court did not go as far as determining whether Devereux had in fact violated the Act (criteria 2). It sent the case back to the Business Court for further proceedings.

The Law Court explained that if “it is determined that Devereux Marine required or allowed its employee, Smith, to lower the boat’s mast in close proximity to CMP’s power line without first complying with the Act’s requirements, Devereux Marine could be found to have ‘cause[d], permit[ted] or allow[ed] any work or activity in violation of’ the Act.” Id. ¶ 30. The Act requires that people carrying out work in closer proximity to an overhead high-voltage line than is permitted by the Act must notify the owner of the line 72 hours in advance of the work. Id. § 757. The Act also prohibits causing a “tool or material used by a person to be brought within 10 feet of an overhead high-voltage line.” 35-A M.R.S.A. § 754 (1)(B). If Devereux violated these provisions, it will most likely be required to indemnify CMP.

Ultimately, all employers of people who work around high-voltage overhead power lines, and indeed any people who decide to undertake their own work in proximity to overhead power lines, should understand their own state’s requirements before undertaking such work and should, of course, put safety first.