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Daily Court Reporter - News Door tag notification of disconnected gas service adequate for vacant property

 

Door tag notification of disconnected gas service adequate for vacant property

Dan Trevas, Supreme Court of Ohio

The Ohio Supreme Court recently rejected a Columbus design firm’s argument that a gas company had given inadequate notice that gas service to the firm’s property had been disconnected. After the service was disconnected, the firm’s pipes froze and burst, damaging the property.

The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s (PUCO) decision that Columbia Gas of Ohio’s use of door tags on property leased to Harris Design Services (HDS) was sufficient to notify the design firm that gas service had been disconnected to make emergency repairs. HDS argued its owner and employees never saw the door tags on the property and did not discover the gas was disconnected until after the damage had occurred.

Writing for the Court, Justice R. Patrick DeWine stated the thrust of the HDS’s argument was Columbia could have provided better notice that the gas was disconnected at its unoccupied property through a letter or phone call.

“But HDS fails to tether this proposition to any legal requirement,” he wrote.

Service Disconnected for Line Repair

HDS vacated the property in 2007, but continued to lease and maintain it. In February 2014, Bruce Harris, HDS owner and president, discovered the building sustained damage caused by frozen pipes. HDS was not aware that Columbia had disconnected the gas service to the property. The firm filed a complaint with the PUCO alleging Columbia failed to give proper notice of disconnection and violated R.C. 4905.22, which requires utilities to provide “necessary and adequate service.”

The PUCO conducted a hearing where the evidence indicated Columbia shut off the gas in September 2013 because a cable company hit a gas line near HDS’s property. A Columbia service technician testified that after he repaired the line, he reestablished service to HDS’s meter, but left the meter valve off and locked so no gas would enter the property until service was reestablished. When he knocked on the front door to notify the owner, he discovered a yellow Columbia tag on already on the door, most likely left by another technician who had been there earlier in the day. The door tag informed owners how to reestablish their disconnected service.

In November 2013, the technician was called back to the site because the gas line was hit a second time, and he checked the HDS meter and noticed it was still locked and off. He knocked on the door again, and when no one answered, he placed an orange tag on top of the yellow tag that had been hanging there since September.

HDS challenged the credibility of the technician’s story, noting that three individuals—Bruce Harris, his wife and a landscaper--had visited the property after the gas service had been disconnected and had not seen the tags.

PUCO Sides with Gas Company

Crediting the Columbia technician’s testimony, the PUCO found the company had placed the tags on the door and that a door tag constitutes adequate notice of disconnection after emergency repair.

HDS appealed to the Supreme Court, which was required to hear the case.

Court Examines Evidence

The Court noted that the PUCO had believed the technician’s testimony about the door tags and that there was no direct evidence contradicting that testimony

As to the three HDS witnesses who said they had not seen the door tags, Justice DeWine wrote, “[T]here was no evidence that any of those witnesses had actually approached the front door of the building.”

The opinion pointed out that the owner never established he entered the property through the front door when he visited it on the two occasions.

“We defer to the PUCO’s credibility determinations in its role as finder of fact,” the opinion stated. “The PUCO received evidence, weighed that evidence, and determined the two tags had been hung on the property’s front door.”

Door-Tag Notice Meets Regulations

The opinion noted the PUCO relied on its adoption of federal gas-pipeline safety standards that are incorporated into the Ohio Administrative Code. O.A.C. 4901:1-16-03(A) requires a utility to comply with its own internal standards, and Columbia’s internal standards require a technician to leave a tag on the door when the gas must be shut off or no one answers the door. The PUCO also found other administrative regulations require a written notice be placed in a conspicuous location on the premises when gas service is disconnected for reasons other than safety, such as nonpayment and tampering.

The Court explained that HDS did not challenge the PUCO’s reliance on the administrative rules, arguing instead that Columbia could have provided better notice through a telephone call or a letter. The Court was not persuaded by the argument.

“[T]he question is not whether another type of notice might have been more likely to provide actual notice to the customer but whether the door-tag notice comported with the requirement that Columbia ‘furnish necessary and adequate service,’” the opinion stated. “We find nothing ‘unlawful or unreasonable’ in the PUCO’s determination that the door-tag notice was adequate, and therefore, we will not disturb its holding in this regard.”

The Court was also not swayed by HDS’s procedural objections to the way the PUCO handled its complaint.

2017-0436. In re Complaint of Harris Design Servs. v. Columbia Gas of Ohio, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-2395.

The opinion can be found online at: http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cases/2018/SCO/0628/170436.asp#.WzYipiAnaUk

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Date Published: July 20, 2018

 

Supreme Court of Ohio

 

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