IPL wins reversal in worker’s electrocution lawsuit

Precedent gave Indianapolis Power and Light a reversal in lawsuit brought by a man who was electrocuted by the utility’s uninsulated power lines.

Joshua Gammon was injured when he was installing aluminum trim around the roof of a commercial building in Indianapolis. He was climbing an aluminum ladder holding a piece of trim when he was electrocuted and fell about 40 feet. He sued IPL a year later, claiming, the power company acted negligently by, among other things, failing to insulate the wires.

IPL moved for summary judgment, but Marion Superior Court denied the motion in a one-sentence order.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed, finding IPL did not have a duty to insulate the power lines.

In Indianapolis Power & Light Company, a Subsidiary of the AES Corporation v. Joshua Gammon and Nicole Gammon, 19A-CT-2206,

the unanimous appellate panel found two previous decisions that were on point for the IPL dispute.

Specifically, in Rogers v. Grunden, 589 N.E.2d 248, 256 (Ind. Ct. App. 1992), reh’g denied, trans. denied, utilities were found to have a much narrower duty when the plaintiff is injured by an uninsulated power line. Companies have a “duty to exercise reasonable care” to keep the power lines insulated just in places where the general public may come in contact with them.

This narrow duty was heavily relied upon nearly 10 years later in Spudich v. N. Ind. Pub. Serv. Co., 745 N.E.2f 281 (Ind. Ct. App. 2001), reh’g denied, trans. denied.

In that case, Ronald Spudich suffered an electrical injury as he was installing Christmas lights on trees in front of the East Chicago Administration Building. He was in an aerial bucket truck near uninsulated power lines when he was injured.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. Again, the appellate panel noted a narrower duty regarding power lines that are not readily accessible. While an electric company has a “common law duty” to keep its power lines safely insulated where the general public may come in contact with the lines, the court reiterated that insulation is not required when the lines are “sufficiently isolated” from the public.

Consequently, the panel concluded the utility did not owe Spudich a duty to insulate the lines because the likelihood of the general population coming in contact with the lines was “virtually nonexistent” and Spudich was near them only because he was doing his job.

“The similarities between this case and Spudich are obvious,” Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the court. “Like the lines at issue in Spudich, the lines at issue were approximately forty feet above the ground and therefore did not pose a threat to the general public. And like the plaintiff in Spudich, Gammon was near the lines only because of his employment.”

Gammon disputes the case is relevant because Spudich refers to an individual who came “into contact” with the power lines and Gammon maintains there is no evidence he touched the lines.

However, the Court of Appeals held the term “contact” should not be read to mean only physically touching. The Spudich ruling relied on Butler v. City of Peru, 733 N.E.2d 912, 916-17 (Ind. 2000) which determined the word “contact” includes not only physically touching the power lines but also coming in close proximity to them.

This article was first published by The Indiana Lawyer.

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