Link v. FirstEnergy Corp. – Utility Company Not Liable for Poorly-Placed Poles
Gregg Hollander | August 1, 2016 | Motorcycle Accidents
Even though a utility company placed its poles in a position that failed to abide U.S. Federal Highway Administration “Clear Zone” stipulations, and even though this failure was noted by the local government with which it contracted, the Ohio Supreme Court has declined to hold the company responsible for an injury that occurred when an ejected motorcyclist struck one of those poles.
In the case of Link v. FirstEnergy Corp., plaintiff sustained serious injuries when, as he was riding along a roadway, he was hit by a deer, ejected from his motorcycle and tossed into a utility pole near the road. He sued the utility company after finding evidence the utility poles were placed very close to the road, in a position that did not follow federal clear zone standards.
When the case went to trial, jurors found the company was liable for the motorcycle accident injuries and imposed damages of almost $370,000 for plaintiff and his wife for serious leg and pelvic injuries. The damage award included damages for medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages and loss of consortium.
However, in a 4-3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court reversed that earlier damage award in Link v. FirstEnergy Corp. Writing for the majority, the lead justice noted that while the county engineer and the county trustees had suggested to the utility company that the pole in question (along with seven others) be removed, it did not formally order the utility company to do so. Plus, the position of the pole, although not in adherence to the industry standard, didn’t interfere with ordinary travel by motorists.
In a dissenting opinion, one justice reasoned that the township had made it clear in letters to both the utility company and its parent firm that they did not have permission to leave the pole where it was, and that this was enough to make the company liable for the plaintiff’s injuries.
It’s possible that reasoning could be adopted by other courts if a similar case were to be presented.
This whole issue started back in 2006 when the local township agreed to widen a road, and an engineer was authorized to start planning. As part of this, a total of 37 utility poles were going to be moved back farther to make way for a wider road. However, the utility company ultimately decided not to move eight of the poles – this one included – during the second phase of the project.
The county engineer wrote the utility company to express concern that the poles would only be 4 to 6 feet from the road, which was not in line with the clear zone rules. However, the company didn’t alter its plans and after the township consulted with the county prosecutor, it went ahead and reopened the road with the poles still in their original location.
A year later, the town of trustees board president wrote to the utility company again, urging the poles to be moved. However, the utility company responded that the poles didn’t violate any government function or impede the roadway so they wouldn’t be moved. The company did say it would move the poles only if the township paid for it, but the trustees dropped the matter at that point.
After plaintiff’s motorcycle accident, he sued the utility company and its parent firm, alleging this failure to remove the poles was negligence. A jury sided with plaintiff and awarded $800,000, with the utility company being 46 percent liable and the county engineer 37 percent liable. (Plaintiff was deemed 17 percent liable.)
The state supreme court ruled that while the utility company does not have unfettered discretion of pole placement, they don’t have to obtain a permit or approval from the county so long as the pole doesn’t impede the road.
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Link v. FirstEnergy Corp., July 26, 2016, Ohio Supreme Court.