Electrocutions, Electric Shock and Other Electrical Injury Cases

Electrical accidents can result in serious burns, disfiguring injuries and death. Recognizing the potentially devastating consequences of negligence in the distribution of electricity, the North Carolina courts have imposed a heightened duty of care on public utilities and others involved with this activity.

North Carolina courts have held that electricity is inherently dangerous and that entities involved with its transmission and distribution must exercise the highest degree of care and utmost foresight and diligence in conducting their business. This duty applies to the maintenance, inspection and operation of power lines and other equipment carrying electricity. The duty applies to public utilities, municipalities, electric membership corporations and other companies that own and operate electrical distribution systems.

Sadly, power companies sometimes violate this duty, which almost inevitably leads to tragedy.

In addition to the relevant case law, a number of codes and standards can come into play in an electrical accident case. These include the following:

National Electrical Safety Code
The NESC imposes detailed safety standards on power companies. These standards apply to such things as power line clearances (the distance from the power line to the ground and adjacent structures), tree trimming around power lines and methods for de-energizing equipment prior to performing work on it.

The North Carolina Administrative Code adopts the NESC as the standard governing the inspection, maintenance and operation of above ground power lines and other equipment by public utilities. As to non-utility entities who own and operate electrical distribution systems (such as municipalities and electric membership corporations), many have voluntarily adopted the NESC as their operative standard. Accordingly, the NESC will be a central focus in electrical injury cases that involve contact with overhead power lines, substation accidents and other claims that involve complex electrical equipment.

While there are some discrepancies in the case law, on at least two occasions the North Carolina court of appeals has ruled that mere compliance with the NESC by power companies does not necessitate a finding of non-liability. In other words, a judge or jury could find that the defendant complied with the NESC but determine that the defendant was negligent in the maintenance, inspection and operation of its equipment.

National Electrical Code
The National Electrical Code is published by the National Fire Protection Association. The NEC addresses nuts-and-bolts electrical issues such as methods for wiring electrical systems, maintenance of electrical equipment, shielding and maintenance of energized equipment in dusty industrial environments, and electrical requirements for electric-operated devices, including signs, cranes, elevators, X-ray equipment and industrial machinery. The NEC has greater applicability to industrial settings than it does to electrical accidents that involve power lines, substations or other electrical system components.

North Carolina Overhead High-Voltage Line Safety Act
In 1995 the General Assembly enacted the Overhead High-Voltage Line Safety Act. The act forbids certain practices, such as requiring workers to perform work in close proximity to energized power lines and using certain equipment in the vicinity of power lines. It also establishes requirements regarding the posting of warning signs when performing work on or near power lines and mandatory notification of power companies prior to performing work on or near their lines.

National Fire Protection Association codes and standards
The NFPA has promulgated numerous industry codes in addition to the NEC that frequently come into play in electrical injury cases. These include NFPA 70E (Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace), NFPA 70B (Recommended Practice for Electrical Equipment Maintenance), NFPA 484 (Standard for Combustible Metals, Metal Powders and Metal Dusts), and NFPA 1 (Fire Prevention Code).

Federal regulations
Federal labor and safety regulations establish detailed requirements to protect against electrocution and electrical injury. Among other things, these regulations establish standards for the performance of work in the vicinity of power lines, methods for de-energizing equipment, use of lockout-tagout procedures to ensure equipment remains de-energized during work, use of protective equipment, and maintaining safe distances from energized equipment.

North Carolina Administrative Code and municipal codes
Sections of the North Carolina Administrative Code may also come into play in electrical injury cases. For example, the North Carolina Administrative Code adopts the National Electric Safety Code as the standard of practice governing the inspection, maintenance and operation of above ground power lines and other equipment by public utilities. The NCAC further provides that each utility shall maintain its plant, distribution system and facilities in proper condition for use in rendering safe and adequate service. 13 NCAC 15.0206 adopts by reference all provisions of the NEC and NFPA 70. Provisions of other NFPA codes and standards are adopted by reference in other sections of the Code.

Common Types of Electrical Injury Cases

Electrocution and electrical injury cases involving contact with overhead power lines

Contact with overhead power lines is a common cause of electrical injuries. In power line cases, plaintiffs are required to prove that the owner of the power lines departed from the applicable standard of care. This will typically involve proving that the defendant negligently constructed, installed or maintained its power lines in violation of the NESC or otherwise failed to take proper precautions to prevent contact with them. For example, a public utility will be liable when a power line incident resulted from inadequate clearances between the power line and the ground or adjacent structures.

When providers of electricity know or should know that construction work or other activities are being performed in close proximity to power lines, they may be required to take reasonable measures to prevent contact with the lines. Such measures could include insulation of the lines, relocating the lines, de-energizing of the lines and the installation of barriers to protect workers from coming into contact with the power lines.

Parties other than power companies can be held legally responsible for injuries that result from contact with overhead power lines. For example, the North Carolina supreme court ruled in a 2002 opinion that the owner of a movie lot was liable to a worker who suffered severe injuries when his aerial lift came into contact with power lines located on the property. The court ruled that the property owner negligently failed to exercise reasonable care to ensure that workers on the property were not injured by contact with the power lines. The court observed that, among other things, the owner could have asked the utility that owned the lines to insulate, relocate, deenergize or bury the lines underground, but failed to do so.

If injuries occur when a boat or other vessel contacts an overhead power line while operating in navigable waterways, the law of admiralty may apply. In addition, Army Corps of Engineers permits are required for power lines that span navigable waters. These permits contain detailed provisions regarding the clearances permitted between the lines and bridges, the water surface and other objects, and establish conditions of permit approval. These permits, together with the entire permitting file, need to be reviewed in such cases.

As one example of an overhead power line case, Mark McGrath recently handled a wrongful death case involving the deaths of two boys who were electrocuted when the aluminum mast of their sailboat came into contact with power lines owned by a city that owned and operated its own electrical distribution system. During his investigation of the case Mark learned that the city’s electrical department, which was not a public utility, had adopted and incorporated by reference the entire NESC. Mark was able to prove that the power lines did not meet the requirements established by the NESC which allowed him to recover a multi-million dollar settlement from the city.

Power line contact cases typically involve deaths, catastrophic injuries, complex interpretations of applicable codes and regulations and thorny legal issues. Careful factual research, familiarity with the applicable legal framework and attention to detail are critical to success in these challenging cases.

Downed power lines
Another common cause of severe electrical injury and death is contact with downed power lines. Frequently, downed power lines are the result of improper inspections and maintenance on the part of the power company. Improperly maintained and inspected power poles can lead to pole failure and collapse resulting in downed lines which pose deadly hazards to members of the public. In other cases, power lines are used past their useful lives resulting in fraying, sagging and collapse which can lead to tragic results when people come into contact with them. Sometimes the power company’s safety and protective devices (such as fuses, circuit breakers and reclosers) failed or were inadequate, allowing the power lines to remain energized.

Construction-related electrical injury cases
Many electrical injury accidents occur during construction projects. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 60% of all work-related fatal electrical injuries arise from the performance of construction work.

Many of these accidents occur when forklifts, cranes, scaffolding, ladders or other equipment come into contact with overhead power lines. Others occur when workers are performing work at an elevation (such as installing a roof) that allows them to make contact with power lines.

In construction accident cases a range of parties may have a legal duty to prevent contact with power lines that are located in work areas. Depending on the facts of a given case, the potential defendants could include the owner of the property where work is being performed, the power company that owns the power lines, the architect, the general contractor, the worker’s co-employees, and the construction manager.

Arc flash incidents
Arc flash accidents typically arise in a workplace setting. Arc flash accidents are dramatic events and can cause horrific burns and other catastrophic injuries.

An arc flash is the light and heat resulting from an electric arc. When an arc forms at high voltages arc flashes can produce deafening noises, supersonic concussive-forces, super-heated shrapnel, temperatures greater than the sun’s surface, and intense, high-energy radiation capable of vaporizing nearby materials.

An arc flash generates large amounts of heat that can severely burn skin and set clothing on fire. In some cases, the pressure wave from an arc flash has enough energy to break the heads of steel bolts and collapse walls. An arc blast can cause devastating injuries, including severe burns, concussion, hearing loss, and shrapnel wounds caused by flying debris.

In one case Mark McGrath represented two electrical workers who were catastrophically injured when a powerful piece of electrical equipment in an aluminum processing plant experienced an arc flash due to improper maintenance, triggering a massive dust explosion. Mark was able to demonstrate that the owner of the facility negligently failed to inspect and maintain its electrical equipment and allowed combustible aluminum dust to accumulate in the facility. Mark recovered $8.7 million in a settlement with the owner of the plant.

Contact with energized equipment
Workers can also suffer severe electrical injuries when they inadvertently come into contact with energized equipment. This almost always results from human error. For example, workers may fail to use appropriate lock out tag out systems to indicate that work is being performed on a piece of electrical equipment.

One case handled by Mark McGrath illustrates how human error and poor communication can lead to catastrophic injuries. Mark represented an electrician that worked for Company A. He was tasked with performing work on equipment located in a substation owned and operated by Company B. Unknown to the worker, and uncommunicated by Company B, Company B had energized the substation prior to the completion of construction. When the worker entered the substation (which he had been told was not yet energized) he came into contact with energized equipment and received severe electrical injuries. Mark successfully recovered a $6.2 million settlement on behalf of the worker and his family.

Mark McGrath spends much of his professional time litigating electrocution and other electrical injury cases. Mark has spoken at seminars about these claims and has written and published numerous articles regarding this area of the law. If you or a loved one has suffered electrical injuries due to the negligence of another, please contact us now for a free consultation and case evaluation. At The McGrath Firm we are kind and compassionate, but we will also fight tirelessly and aggressively to obtain justice for our electrical injury clients. It would be our privilege to represent you.