Experience has shown that motor vehicles occasionally collide with utility poles located along roads and highways. Causes can include driver error, icy road conditions, animal dart out, and collisions with other vehicles. Bodily injury sometimes results and that brings the prospect of litigation.
Those injured may look to the utility for potential recovery. Electric cooperatives must be prepared to investigate and defend claims that may be brought even up to two years after the accident.
Electric cooperatives, like other utilities, typically have the authority to locate poles and structures in the road right-of-way. Often the available right-of-way is limited, resulting in the pole being close to the road’s edge. Some traffic safety engineers contend that utility poles (as well as mailboxes, bridge culverts, fences, trees, etc.) should be further from the roadway. A few of those safety engineers will testify against utilities in litigation..
In recent years, Indiana courts have considered suits against utilities whose poles allegedly caused or contributed to the injury of both drivers and passengers. The claims vary from the pole was too close to the road; or at the wrong corner of an intersection; or on a dangerous curve; or was rotten and broke when it shouldn’t have broken; or was too sturdy and didn’t give at all; or should have had reflectors; or should somehow have been guarded. The theories are limited only by one’s imagination. Although the National Electric Safety Code merely requires poles be located outside the traveled portion of the road, some groups are lobbying for more room for vehicles to leave the road without impacting obstructions. Several Indiana courts have left it up to the jury to decide if the utility exercised reasonable care in its placement of the pole.
When its pole is struck by a motor vehicle and injury results, an electric cooperatives must anticipate the possibility of a liability claim, even if there is no initial suggestion of blame on the utility’s part.
In these situations coop personnel should take digital photos of the pole, the vehicle(s) involved, and all adjacent areas. They also should prepare a good drawing with accurate measurements of the scene. (Oftentimes the utility line or road layout will be changed before litigation arises.) Record what action was taken to repair the pole. If the pole had to be replaced, take care to preserve its remnants in a dry, interior storage location so it won’t deteriorate over time. Implement a reasonable pole and line inspection policy and preserve the records of those inspections. Treat and report the incident as any other potential claim.
Proper recording of the facts and preservation of relevant evidence will allow for a more thorough and reliable investigation of these pole contacts. It will also improve the coop’s chances of avoiding suit or prevailing in court should suit be filed.
This article was written by Kent Frandsen, a partner in the law firm of Parr Richey Obremskey Frandsen & Patterson, who routinely represents Indiana electric cooperatives in civil litigation. The statements contained herein are for information purposes only and are not to be considered legal advice and should not be construed to form an attorney-client relationship. If you have questions regarding this article, please contact an attorney. August 2010