Property damage by utilities aggravates customers

Flooded basements and other problems prompt complaints

  • Brienne Daugherty's basement was flooded after a BGE contractor damaged her sewer line while replacing gas infrastructure beneath the sidewalk in front of her house. The backup started in the laundry room soaking the carpet and walls. Mold remediation took out two feet of the wall. She's frustrated that the company's insurer isn't willing to pay what repair contractors say the job will cost.
Brienne Daugherty's basement was flooded after a BGE… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
December 01, 2013|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

Brie Daugherty doesn't object to the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. replacing a gas line in her Arbutus neighborhood.

It's the flooded basement — courtesy of a sewer line broken by a BGE contractor — that bothers her.

"Obviously the infrastructure needs to be replaced, I'm not doubting that," she said. "And I have no problem helping to pay for it. I do have a problem helping to pay for that when my house is damaged and it's like pulling nails to get it fixed."

She's not the only aggravated utility customer. Since 2010, about 400 Marylanders have complained to state regulators about property damage they said was caused by utilities companies or their contractors — from cracked driveways to torn-up lawns to fried appliances.

The opportunities for accidental damage are mounting as Maryland electric and gas utilities pick up the pace of replacing aging infrastructure. For example, BGE said it wants to increase its annual gas-system construction and maintenance spending by 250 percent over the next several years.

But while utilities can ask the Maryland Public Service Commission for the right to pass their costs on to customers, customers with property damage can't get the agency to order up a reimbursement check.

Utilities or their contractors might independently fix such problems — BGE, for example, says it makes a payment or sends out a work crew in a high portion of claims about damage it directly caused. But the only outside party that can order the companies to pay is the court system, said Obi Linton, who heads the commission's office of external relations.

"We don't have the authority to do that," he said. "As a general matter, if you're looking for money, there's not much we can do to help."

What the commission can — and must — do is forward all complaints to the utilities, which are required to respond. Sometimes that makes the difference in a dispute.

David Rohrs said Verizon left a bare strip of ground near his front yard after installing fiber-optic cable in his Perry Hall neighborhood, and his efforts to get the company to fix it were going nowhere. He said he called and called, and even went to Verizon's offices in Hunt Valley.

Finally, he complained to the Public Service Commission in April. Verizon insisted it wasn't the cause of the bare patch, the complaint record shows. But company officials sent a contractor out the next week to put in top soil and grass seed.

"It probably took the guy less than five minutes to do the work," said Rohrs, who runs an online advertising and marketing firm. "I don't know why they couldn't fix it until the Public Service Commission got involved."

Verizon spokeswoman Sandy Arnette said she couldn't speak to "the alleged delay in responding" because the company has no record of Rohrs' calls before he complained to regulators. The contractor that replanted the grass thought the bare patch was caused by fluid leaking from a car, she said.

When people call with damage claims, "we make every effort to reach a timely resolution," Arnette wrote in an email.

While utilities are required to respond to formal complaints, fixing damage isn't mandatory. In some cases — when appliances or electronics die in a power surge, for instance — customers are unlikely to get satisfaction. BGE isn't liable for losses caused by surges or outages except in cases of "willful default or neglect," a rule the company says is typical across the country.

David Miller of Phoenix said he found that hurdle a high one when he took BGE to small-claims court this year. He sued for reimbursement over a February surge he says damaged $3,300 in lighting controls, breakers, surge protectors and other electrical equipment in his Baltimore County home.

Miller, an electrical contractor, thought he could make a case for gross negligence. He said he'd called BGE the week before when the area had four momentary outages, and said he saw no evidence that the utility came out to check the equipment.

But the judge, while sympathetic, said he had no choice but to rule in favor of BGE, Miller said.

BGE declined to comment about his case but said it doesn't reimburse for surge damage, deferring to state utility rules and legal precedent.

Miller thinks there ought to be a state-mandated fund for utility damage, much like the EmPOWER Maryland fund that customers can tap for energy-efficiency work. His wasn't the only home affected by the February power surge, he said, and he's lost electronics to two other surges over the years. He filed a claim with his insurance company after the second incident — and his insurer raised his rates.

The utility surge rules don't strike him as fair.

"The laws are written in such a way to protect the companies," Miller said.

The state has characterized the rules as protecting customers — in the broad sense.

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