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Dickerson v. Mississippi Power & Light Co.

April 16, 1998


Before Sullivan, P.j., McRAE And Smith, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan, Presiding Justice, For The Court:






Jerry and Saranell Dickerson began receiving electrical service from Mississippi Power and Light Company (MP&L) to their new home outside of Durant, Mississippi in 1973. Service was provided to their home through a distribution line from a high voltage transmission line, the distribution line being strung beneath and perpendicular to the high voltage transmission line. Testimony differed as to the amount of clearance between the two lines, varying from two and a half to three feet up to fifteen feet. The National Electrical Safety Code requires at least a 3.6 foot clearance between transmission and distribution lines, and MP&L's policy sets a goal of ten to fifteen feet of clearance. Mr. Dickerson became concerned about the safety of the wiring design as soon as service was installed, and his anxiety grew when the electrical box on his house melted in early 1974. Mr. Dickerson discussed his apprehension regarding the safety of the line with Jewell Knight, a manager at MP&L, and requested that the distribution line be buried instead of strung beneath the high voltage transmission line. He also wrote a letter to Mr. Knight, informing him of his desire to have the line buried for safety reasons. However, Mr. Dickerson testified that Joe Crowder from the Engineering Department at MP&L informed him that burying the line would be too expensive. Mr. Dickerson said that he and Mr. Crowder had multiple conversations over the years regarding the line, but nothing was ever done to extend the clearance between the high voltage transmission line and the distribution line or to bury the distribution line. Mr. Dickerson also testified that he contacted the Mississippi Public Service Commission (MPSC) regarding the safety of the line, but they refused to get involved.

Mr. Knight's testimony was admitted at trial in the form of his deposition. He testified that after his original conversation with Mr. Dickerson to initiate electrical service to the Dickerson home from MP&L, he never had any direct contact with Mr. Dickerson. Mr. Knight denied ever receiving a letter from Mr. Dickerson regarding the safety of his distribution line. Mr. Crowder denied having any conversations with the Dickersons about burying their distribution line. He specifically denied ever telling them that the line could not be buried due to budget constraints. Mr. Crowder and Mr. Knight also stated that it was normal practice to string a distribution line under the transmission line. Evidence was presented showing that prior to July 19, 1994, the MPSC rules required the customer to pay for the additional cost of providing underground service before constructing the line, and after line construction the customer was responsible for the entire cost of burying the line. The Dickersons signed an application for electrical service on July 30, 1973, agreeing to abide by the rules and regulations of MP&L and the MPSC.

On July 19, 1994, increased electrical flow caused the high voltage transmission line to sag into the Dickersons' distribution line. Contact between the two lines resulted in a power surge to the Dickersons' transformer, causing it to explode. The Dickersons' home sustained substantial damage in the form of broken water pipes underneath the slab, damage to the chimney, cracked brick and broken wood on the exterior of the house, breaks in the sidewalk, a leaking sewage line, dead grass in the yard, water damage to the carpet and personal items, ruined frozen food, broken bathroom fixtures, an inoperative telephone, and damage to the hot water heater connections. The Dickersons also claimed that Mrs. Dickerson was bruised in the accident, and that Mr. Dickerson suffered from eye burns, depression, and severe anxiety as a result of the accident. MP&L buried the distribution line on July 28, 1994, following the accident.

On February 24, 1995, Jerry and Saranell Dickerson filed their complaint in the Holmes County Circuit Court against MP&L, alleging that due to MP&L's gross negligence and/or intentional conduct, they sustained actual damages in excess of $300,000. They also requested punitive damages in excess of twenty million dollars. In its answer, MP&L accepted responsibility for the damages to the Dickersons' home and agreed to work with them to have it repaired. However, MP&L denied any negligent conduct that would support punitive damages.

MP&L presented evidence showing that the increased electrical flow through the transmission line next to the Dickersons' home on July 19, 1994, was caused by an out-of-service transmission line between Rosedale and Stringtown due to the ice storm in February of 1994, lost service from tube leaks in the boiler at the Gerald Andrus Plant, and reduced output from Grand Gulf Nuclear Plant due to control equipment failure. Bill Magee, Superintendent of MP&L's Transmission Operation Center, testified that the unprecedented combination of these three events could not have been anticipated. However, MP&L accepted responsibility for the contact between the two lines and did not oppose the directed verdict on liability based upon its duty to ensure that its customers receive safe electrical service. Failure to do so was a violation of the MPSC's requirement that providers of electricity comply with the National Electrical Safety Code requirements.

Based upon these facts, the court granted a directed verdict for the Dickersons on the issue of liability, and the jury awarded them $84,450 in compensatory damages. After hearing arguments from counsel, Judge Lewis found that the issue of punitive damages should be submitted to the jury. The jury returned with a verdict in favor of MP&L on the issue of punitive damages on May 4, 1996.

The Dickersons filed their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or for a new trial on the issue of punitive damages only, based upon the granting of Instruction 5 and the admission of Exhibit D-5 regarding a Mississippi Public Service Commission regulation. Judge Lewis denied their motion on June 10, 1996, and the Dickersons appeal to this ...

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