Utilities Could Get Liability Shield

Industry, Legislative/Regulatory,

FL House LogoArticle reposted with permission from The News Service of Florida.

Utilities couldn’t be held liable for damages caused by outages related to such things as hurricanes, under a change added Monday to a Florida House bill. The House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the bill (HB 7057), which is overall aimed at helping communities brace for future natural disasters. In part, the bill would allow people to remain on their properties as they rebuild after storms, require quicker approval of building permits and set more-exact time frames on removing debris and destroyed boats from state waters. An amendment added Monday said: “A public utility is not liable for damages based in whole or in part on changes in the reliability, continuity, or quality of utility services which arise in any way out of an emergency or disaster.” Bill sponsor Mike Giallombardo, R-Cape Coral, said the intent is to prevent frivolous lawsuits that could increase attorney fees for utilities, which could eventually impact rates. While he voted for the overall bill, Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Davie, said the protection for utilities needs to be more narrowly written, as “legitimate” claims could also be blocked. “When (the bill) says ‘arise in any way,’ that could be something that is not really part of the actual emergency,” Gottlieb said. The amendment came after a panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled last month that Florida Power & Light could face a class-action lawsuit stemming from power outages in Hurricane Irma, which barreled up the state in 2017. Plaintiffs in the case contend that the utility did not meet obligations to help prevent power outages, such as carrying out a storm “hardening” plan, replacing aging poles and adequately clearing vegetation near lines. FPL has argued, in part, that disputes about its storm-hardening efforts should go before the Florida Public Service Commission. The Senate on April 3 unanimously approved a separate version (SB 250) of the disaster-related bill, but that version did not address the issue of utilities’ liability. The House bill also seeks to establish temporary housing for disaster-relief workers, make permanent funding for local-government emergency loans and encourage local governments to have financial plans in place for major disasters.