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One Court of Justice Blog

May 27, 2016

COA holds that power companies have an obligation to reasonably inspect and maintain power lines

In Estate of Catherine Skidmore v. Consumers Energy Company No. 323757, the Michigan Court of Appeals reaffirmed a Michigan Supreme Court holding that power companies have an obligation to reasonably inspect and repair wires, and that duty involves more than remedying defective conditions brought to their attention. Schultz v Consumers Power Co. 443 Mich 445; 506 NW2d 175 (1993). Moreover, the Court held that rescuers are foreseeable, and a reasonable rescue attempt will not make the rescuer comparatively negligent if they voluntarily put themselves at an increased risk of harm to save another.  Finally, the Court held that only the owner of a subject property may assert that their duty is limited by the open and obvious doctrine.
 
Catherine Skidmore was electrocuted when she came into contact with a fallen electric line on her neighbor’s lawn. Plaintiff Ralph Skidmore, individually and as personal representative of his wife’s estate, brought suit, alleging that the elevated power line fell due to a failure by Consumers to exercise reasonable care to maintain its lines and that Consumers’ negligence was a proximate cause of his wife’s death. Consumers filed a motion for summary disposition, asserting that it was not reasonably foreseeable that Cathy would run to the house where the downed power line had fallen and that it therefore owed her no duty. 
 
Consumers relied upon the Michigan Supreme Court case of Groncki v Detroit Edison Co, 453 Mich 644; 557 NW2d 289 (1996), that rejected several claims involving incidents in which individuals accidentally came in direct contact with power lines that were elevated and that were not alleged to be defective or improperly maintained. However, the Court rejected this argument stating that this case was patently distinguishable because it involved the defendant’s duty to maintain the power lines in reasonable condition, and, unlike the cases the defendant cited, it was foreseeable that persons in a residential area would act in response to the emergency to aid the neighbor. The defendant also contended that decedent Catherine Skidmore failed to take reasonable care to avoid the power lines.  The Court rejected that argument on both factual and legal grounds. On factual grounds, the court stated that there was unanimous testimony that it was dark outside and there was no sparking fire where Catherine Skidmore was walking. On legal grounds, the Court stated that the open and obvious hazard doctrine which would limit a defendant’s duty to the plaintiff may only be asserted by the owner or controller of the subject property. The fact that defendant did not own or control the property and the fact that the accident happened on a third party’s property does not turn a case about proper maintenance of elevated power lines into a premises liability case.    

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