Lawyers’ Corner: Electrical Expert in Pulley v Consumers Energy Company

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It can sometimes be hard to explain how one thing leads to another in electrocution law. Plaintiffs’ lawyers often end up needing to educate the judge and jury on the science, as well as the law. That’s what makes an electrical expert crucial to your client’s success.

Electrocution law is a complicated area that involves a high level of technical expertise, both in the law and regarding the electrical systems. When a plaintiff chose to skip the electrical expert in favor of common sense, her claims fell short and her case was dismissed.

On July 19, 2013, there was a power surge and outage at Cathie Pulley’s home. Severe thunderstorms with high winds and lightning had blown through Clio, Michigan that day, knocking down a power line. Pulley called Consumers Energy Co, and a team repaired the line.

Then, three days later, Pulley’s power began to surge again. She went outside and looked up toward the sunny sky. There she saw electrical wires a few houses away were smoking. She recorded a video and called the electrical company again. Then she decided to take a shower. When she was finished, she touched the shower handle with her left hand and received a strong shock that ran up her left arm causing her neck and back pain and numbness. She sued Consumers Energy Co for negligence.

The Importance of an Electrical Expert

But the trial court judge granted the defendant’s motion for summary disposition primarily because she had no evidence to tie the Defendant’s actions to her injury. The trial court said:

“[T]he Court can believe plaintiff’s claims that she received some kind of shock when she touched the shower handle. The Court can believe plaintiff’s claims that she saw smoking power lines outside of the house. There’s a gap between what happened with the smoking power line on the outside of the house and what happened inside the house where the shower was. And for this claim to proceed[,] plaintiff would have to have someone who could show how that electricity moved from the smoking line to the shower handle and there’s a gap. There’s no showing of that, and . . . defendant’s got an expert saying that there was no path for the electricity to have entered the shower. Plaintiff does not have an expert showing that there is a path.”

In Pulley v Consumers Energy Company, the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed. It said Pulley “insinuates” that the cause of her injury was faulty repair work by Consumers. But she “failed to offer any evidence to support such a theory.” An electrical expert would have been able to testify to fill the gap between the smoking lines and the shock. He or she would have taken the plaintiff’s claims beyond insinuation to show the actual negligence to make the claim.

An expert witness was particularly crucial in the defendant’s experts’ affidavits. Immediately after the injury, Consumers sent out a Electric Field Leader to investigate the situation. He provided an affidavit stating that the July 22 power surge was unrelated to the July 19 repair. Consumers also present its own electrical expert who stated that “[i]t was impossible for a complete circuit to have existed that would allow electrical current to enter the shower whereby a person would receive an electrical shock.”

When faced with a motion for summary disposition including these affidavits, a plaintiff’s lawyer is well served to obtain his or her own expert to combat this evidence. But Pulley’s counsel didn’t do so, and it killed her case. The Court of Appeals said:

“The mere fact that plaintiff alleges that she received a shock when she touched the shower handle is insufficient to show that how any negligent act on defendant’s part caused that shock to occur.”

Res IPSA Loquitur Doesn’t Excuse Proof

To avoid having to explain how Consumers’ negligence caused Pulley’s injuries, her attorneys relied on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. This legal theory creates an inference of neglect when a plaintiff is not able to prove the actual occurrence of a negligent act. But it doesn’t excuse the need for proof.

One requirement for res ipsa loquitur is that “the event must be of a kind which ordinarily does not occur in the absence of someone’s negligence.” The Michigan Supreme Court has said that this must either be something within the common understanding of the jury or be proven by expert testimony. Once again, when Pulley’s attorneys chose not to hire an electrical expert they did away with the proof necessary to sustain her case.

Electrocution is a complicated negligence case to bring. The science behind electrical circuitry and the standard of care required of utility companies can be hard for any judge or jury to understand. You need a highly skilled electrical expert witness who can lead decision makers through the technology and help them understand what went wrong. Without one, all you have is an injury and bare allegations. And that, like in Pulley, will quickly get your case dismissed.

David Christensen is an electrocution attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. If you have a client who has been injured because of the neglect of a utility company, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.