(CN) – Entergy is liable for a low-hanging power line that struck a man riding on the house he was moving down a residential street, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Burkhart Moving Co. was moving a house down a residential street in Bridge City, Texas, when the live power line hit employee Nicholas Traxler as he was removing obstructions in the way of the house. Traxler fell to the ground and also sustained injuries from electrical shock.
The Entergy line was approximately 20 feet from the ground, while the peak of the house’s roof was approximately 17 feet from the ground.
Traxler sued Entergy and Burkhart, alleging negligence and that Texas law sets a minimum height for such lines at 22 feet.
A jury found that Traxler, Burkhart, and Entergy were all negligent, assigning percentages of responsibility at 10 percent, 46 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
After the court awarded actual damages, interest and costs, the appeals court reversed and rendered a take-nothing judgment.
Entergy persuaded the Court of Appeals for the 9th District of Texas that the statute did not apply because the line in question was a “distribution line” rather than a “transmission line,” and the latter type alone is subject to the 22-foot requirement.
The high court disagreed with that distinction Friday, relying on legislative intent and wording.
“The Legislature surely understood the common, imprecise, and interchangeable meanings of these terms in normal usage and since 1947 has used the terms in the relevant statutes without defining or distinguishing them,” Justice Don Willett wrote for the court. “Instead, it has repeatedly referred to ‘transmission and distribution’ lines in the plural in one part of the statute, and ‘a transmission line’ in another, without expressly indicating that transmission lines and distribution lines are two different things. It has amended and then codified the statute but has declined to include a statutory definition giving a more technical and distinguishing meaning to ‘transmission’ and ‘distribution.’ If the Legislature intended to distinguish the terms, we believe it would have done so.”
Without technical definitions spelled out by the Legislature, the court should rely on the common usage of the words.
“The words ‘distribution’ and ‘transmission’ are common words that are used frequently in everyday conversation and writing, and can mean the same thing in common parlance,” Willett wrote.
Entergy also lost its alternative argument that the 22-foot requirement applies only applies to highways and county roads, not city streets.
“We reject this construction because it conflicts with the plain wording of the statute,” Willett wrote. “Section 181.045(b)(1) provides that a utility must ‘use single pole construction for a line along a highway or county road,’ but Subsection (b)(2) imposes the 22-foot height requirement wherever a transmission line ‘crosses a highway or road.’ This requirement as to roads is not limited to county roads.”
New Orleans-based Entergy is the second-largest nuclear generator in the country, with annual revenues topping $11 billion. It generates approximately 30,000 megawatts at its power plants, delivering electricity to 2.8 million customers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.