In Deitrick v. Long Island Power Authority, Hurricane Sandy uprooted a tree in front of the plaintiff’s neighbor’s home. In the process, the tree disturbed the natural gas service line leading to the neighbor’s home. An explosion ensued, sending debris into the plaintiff’s home and injuring the plaintiffs. Keyspan Gas, the utility company responsible for this gas line, moved for summary judgment and the lower court denied its motion.
Upon appeal, the Second Department found that utility companies can only be held responsible for accidents that occur as a result of their negligent installation or negligent maintenance of their systems. Specifically, the Appellate Division held that utility companies cannot be expected to unearth their entire system and go beneath sidewalks and roadways to inspect for possible defects. Rather, there has to be some warning or notice alerting the company of a possible defect, such as a pre-existing condition on the property before the gas line is installed or reports of gas leaks. In the instant matter, Keyspan Gas proved that the tree was not present when the gas line was initially installed through the use of an expert that measured the age of the tree that uprooted the gas line. The expert concluded that the tree was installed after the gas line had been installed and before the community in the area had even been formed. Moreover, Keyspan Gas provided reports of inspections it had conducted in the area mere three years prior to the accident, which detected no issues. Accordingly, the Appellate Court was satisfied that Keyspan could not have known that the tree would uproot its gas line because the tree was not present when the gas line was installed and there were no records of reported issues with the subject line.
Of interest are the large number of ongoing cases related to Hurricane Sandy and the court’s treatment of accidents that resulted from this natural disaster. The Deitrick action indicates that courts are not willing to place responsibility on parties for accidents that did not result from their direct negligence but, rather, were caused by this unfortunate “force majeure.”
Thanks to Georgia Coats for her contribution to this post. Please contact Vito A. Pinto with any questions.