WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court revived negligence claims Monday in a case where a fisherman was killed as state utility workers attempted to raise a downed power line in the Tennessee River.
Gary Thacker had been in a boat with his friend, Anthony Szozda, for a local fishing tournament on July 30, 2013, as the work from the Tennessee Valley Authority was underway.
Earlier in the day a power line had become lax when a pulling cable failed during a conductor-replacement project, and the TVA was lifting the conductor out of the water when Thacker and Szozda’s boat sped past.
The conductor struck both men, killing Szozda instantly and causing serious injuries to Thacker.
Thacker and his wife sued the TVA for negligence, but a federal judge found that the utility had immunity, and the 11th Circuit affirmed dismissal of the case.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed unanimously.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the 11-page opinion for the court, saying the lower courts misinterpreted how much federal law protects an entity like TVA, which has the unique distinction of being considered both a government and private entity. Kagan emphasized that, despite the company’s government-entity status, the actual work being done — power-line maintenance — was more akin to commercial work, which is not protected.
“If the conduct is commercial — the kind of thing any power company might do — the TVA cannot invoke sovereign immunity,” Kagan wrote. “Only if the conduct at issue is governmental might the court decide that an implied limit on the clause bars the suit.”
Thacker’s attorney Franklin Taylor Rouse said in an email they were extremely happy with the high court’s decision.
“Not only for our clients, but for the millions of people that live in areas where the Tennessee Valley Authority operates,” said Rouse, a lawyer with Conchin, Cloud & Cole in Huntsville, Alabama.
U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco argued on behalf of TVA.