Ask Stacy: If the Power Company Ruins My Appliances, Can I Make Them Pay?

Photo (cc) by clifnotes

If, through negligence, neglect or just bad luck, someone destroys your property, they’re typically liable to repair or replace it.

Or are they? The answer is not as simple as you might think.

Here’s this week’s reader question:

I live in Florida. About five months ago I awoke to find four of my kitchen appliances were all burnt out. I called my electric provider, who came out and discovered that my terminal out at the street was severely corroded and caused the “negative neutral” that fried my appliances. They fixed the terminal but, despite much effort in communicating with the company and their insurance company, they denied any liability. Meanwhile, I have four appliances that are shot to the tune of about $1,250. I don’t know where to turn. It was their equipment which they neglected to properly inspect and maintain that obviously caused the problem. I would really appreciate any advice. I’m retired with a fixed income and probably can’t afford an attorney. Has anyone ever won a case against a utility company with similar circumstances? — Keith

Before we get to Keith’s troubles, here’s a video I did last year. It’s called “Why Today’s Appliances Suck.”

Now, let’s get to Keith’s question.

If someone messes up your stuff, they have to pay. Right?

Generally, the answer to that question is yes. If I run a red light and hit your vehicle with my car, I’m responsible for the damage to both you and your car. If you drop a bowling ball on my foot, you should have to pay my medical expenses. When we’re at fault, we pay. That’s only fair.

As most of us have discovered, however, life isn’t always fair.

I sent an email to the Florida Public Service Commission asking about damage to appliances through the negligence of a utility provider. The following is part of the response I got back from their spokesperson. It’s from the Tariff, the set of rules defining the relationship between a utility and its customers.

The [utility] company will use reasonable diligence at all times to provide continuous service at the agreed nominal voltage, and shall not be liable to the customer for complete or partial failure or interruption of service, or for fluctuations in voltage, resulting from causes beyond its control or through the ordinary negligence of its employees, servants or agents.

The customer shall indemnify, hold harmless and defend the company from and against any and all liability, proceedings, suits, cost or expense for loss, damage or injury to persons or property, in any manner directly or indirectly connected with, or growing out of the transmission and use of electricity on the customer’s side of the point of delivery.

So this says the Public Service Commission is granting immunity to the power company for any problems it causes, including those resulting from the ordinary negligence of its employees.

Why would a Public Service Commission, whose job it is to represent customers, let utilities off the hook? In a 2012 article from The Palm Beach Post concerning another customer whose appliances were fried in a situation similar to Keith’s, a spokesperson from the Public Service Commission said this:

These clauses protect the company from excessive insurance costs, keeping electric rates reasonable. Without these provisions, insurance costs to the company would be passed on to the consumer, making electric rates prohibitively expensive.

That statement would make a lot more sense if public utilities were nonprofit organizations rather than for-profit monopolies. Nextera, for example, the company that owns Florida Power & Light, made $423 million in profits in just the last quarter.

That’s probably more than Keith and I made combined, although we’re liable when we screw up.

They might pay anyway

Sometimes utility companies will pay. In the article from The Palm Beach Post I quoted from earlier, for example, the homeowner was offered compensation by Florida Power:

After Juno Beach-based FPL offered to pay $5,500 of the $9,616 claim, Dan McCallum, 75, contacted the Florida Public Service Commission. He also sent that complaint to FPL, which then upped its offer to $7,300.

One gets the impression that it was the noise McCallum made that resulted in the higher offer from FPL. So I thought maybe I’d try to make a little noise and see if that would help Keith. I sent an email to Florida Power & Light’s media relations department, explaining his situation and asking for an explanation. That was weeks ago. Still waiting for a reply.

You can still sue

The response I received from the Florida Public Service Commission included this sentence: “If a customer believes the utility is at fault for damage done to equipment, that needs to [be] pursued in civil court.”

So court could be an answer. As Keith points out, attorneys aren’t cheap. Still, if he doesn’t get any satisfaction by complaining to the company or Public Service Commission, I’d suggest two additional possibilities.

The first is to talk to a consumer attorney. (You can find one here.) Initial appointments are generally free, so there’s nothing to lose. Best case? They take Keith’s case on a contingency basis, write a threatening letter to the company and get a check. Worst case? They say there’s no way to win and won’t take the case. With a phone call or two, Keith can find out.

But here’s an idea I like even better. Keith should sue FPL in small claims court. He won’t need a lawyer. Small claims courts encourage consumers to represent themselves. FPL, on the other hand, will send a lawyer, one that will probably cost them more than the $1,250 Keith is asking.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

About me

I founded Money Talks News in 1991. I’ve earned a CPA (now inactive), and have also earned licenses in stocks, commodities, options principal, mutual funds, life insurance, securities supervisor and real estate. If you’ve got time to kill, you can learn more about me here.

Got more money questions? Browse lots more Ask Stacy answers here.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

Read Next
Why Is My Pension Killing My Social Security Benefit?

A reader says the government is penalizing him for having a pension. Is he right?

13 Smart Tricks to Organize Every Room of Your Home

Get your household organized with these brilliant and inexpensive tricks.

21 Things You Should Always Buy at a Dollar Store

Dollar stores have great bargains on both everyday and occasional purchases.

10 Products That Upgrade Your Home for Less Than $45

Make a fresh start with these affordable Amazon buys.

9 Products That Will Organize Your Home for Under $45

These clever Amazon finds can help transform a messy nest into the pristine home of your dreams.

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Most Popular
7 Kirkland Signature Items to Avoid at Costco

Even if it seems you save a bundle buying Costco’s Kirkland Signature brand products, they may not be the bargain they appear to be.

Am I Eligible for My Mother’s Social Security Benefit?

Can an adult daughter tap into her late mother’s benefit?

9 Things You’ll Never See at Costco Again

The warehouse store offers an enormous selection, but these products aren’t coming back.

3 Ways to Get Microsoft Office for Free

With a little ingenuity, you can cut Office costs to zero.

This Surprise Factor Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

Nearly half of U.S. residents may face this threat.

Organize Your Home With These 10 Thrift Store Finds

Resolve to be clutter-free in 2021 with these secondhand purchases.

11 Laws You Could Be Breaking Without Knowing It

Seriously? Fibbing about the weather is a crime? This and other little-known legal traps await the unwary.

Is This Treatable Condition Causing Your High Blood Pressure?

Researchers say too many doctors are overlooking this potential source of hypertension.

13 Things Seniors Can Get for Free — or Almost Free

There are many ways to get cheap or free services and goods after reaching a certain age.

These Are the 3 Best Used Cars You Can Buy

These vehicles boast reliability, safety and long-lasting value.

6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have

Few retirees have all of these documents that are crucial to their golden years — especially during a pandemic.

Internet Providers Can’t Charge You for This Anymore

Starting this month, your ISP no longer can bill you for this fee.

21 Items to Cut From Your Budget That You Won’t Even Miss

Start off the new year by implementing these small-but-smart savings strategies. They’ll soon add up.

15 Painless Ways You Can Cut Costs in 2021

Follow these tips to save, so you’ll have money for things that really matter.

9 Small Expenses That Are Bleeding Your Budget Dry

Keep more of future paychecks by eliminating these budget-busting unnecessary expenses.

Do This in the Car If You Want to Avoid COVID-19

It takes just seconds to take this simple preventive measure.

11 Huge Retirement Costs That Are Often Overlooked

Does your retirement budget account for all of these costs?

7 Tricks to Cleaning Your Bathroom Faster

These tips can get your bathroom sparkling with little time and no elbow grease.

7 Bank Accounts With Extra Perks for Seniors

These accounts offer exclusive discounts and other perks — including interest — to older customers.

View More Articles

View this page without ads

Help us produce more money-saving articles and videos by subscribing to a membership.

Get Started

Add a Comment

Our Policy: We welcome relevant and respectful comments in order to foster healthy and informative discussions. All other comments may be removed. Comments with links are automatically held for moderation.