After Deadly Winter Storm, Families File Wrongful Death Lawsuits Against Utilities

A law professor says the state’s wrongful death statute specifically allows suits against utility companies.

By Michael Marks & Shelly BrisbinMarch 4, 2021 1:20 pm, ,

Ann Rodriguez was one of the dozens of Texans who died during February’s winter storm. The 63-year-old San Antonio woman died on Feb. 17, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Her husband, Jesus Rodriguez, says that his wife died because their house was so cold during the blackouts. That’s why Mr. Rodriguez recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CPS, San Antonio’s main electric provider, asking for at least $1 million in damages because the utility failed to prepare for the winter weather. At least two families have sued the state’s biggest electric utility, Oncor, for the deaths of their loved ones.

Victor Flatt is a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, and codirects the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Center there. Flatt told Texas Standard the plaintiffs may have a case against the utility companies.

“Texas, like most states, authorizes wrongful death lawsuits by statute, and they certainly would be included in the categories of people that can be sued for wrongful death,” Flatt said.

The question a court would have to decide, as in many tort cases, is whether the utility was “acting reasonably, with due care – could they have prevented the harm?”

Similar wrongful death suits were brought in California after wildfires killed dozens of people. PG&E, the state’s dominant utility, was accused of failing to maintain infrastructure, allegedly causing the fires. PG&E accepted responsibility for its part in the fires. Texas utilities have not yet taken that step.

In addition to wrongful death, plaintiffs could sue for economic harm caused by being without power, Flatt says.

More lawsuits could be coming, Flatt says. Though the Texas Supreme Court is due to rule this summer on whether the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, is immune from lawsuits, individual utilities are not immune, Flatt says.

“The only question is, what could they have done, what should they have done?” Flatt said.

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