Alita Ditkowsky with her broken computer, which was fried after...

Alita Ditkowsky with her broken computer, which was fried after a LIPA power surge, in her home in Commack on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Credit: Ed Betz

Alita Ditkowsky said she was asleep in October when she and her husband experienced the latest power outage in her Commack neighborhood.

When power came back on several hours later and she found that her husband’s computer had been fried by a power surge, she entered the frustrated legion of PSEG Long Island customers who have filed claims against the electric utility, only to be declined.

Each year about 2,400 customers file claims against the utility, around 1,800 of which related to damage or loss to electronics, appliances and other property, or home repairs tied to electric issues, PSEG says.

But only 15 percent to 20 percent of claims receive some form of payment, according to the utility, which pays out around $1.8 million a year.

One reason so few claims are paid may be because of a provision in LIPA’s official rule book, known as the tariff. Among its provisions: LIPA “shall not be liable for any injury, casualty or damage that results in any way from the supply or use of electricity” or its equipment “unless the injuries or damages are the result of the authority’s negligence.”

Customers such as Ditkowsky say the rules don’t leave utility customers any real chance of winning, because the utility itself determines whether negligence occurred. After filing claims, those rejected simply resort to using their insurance. In Ditkowsky’s case, her $1,000 deductible made filing a claim unfeasible, given the computer’s comparable cost.

“I believe they’ll twist the story to suit their own needs,” she said of PSEG. “If they’re never going to be liable, why have a claims department in the first place?” Worse, she said, letters from the utility never told her she could appeal PSEG’s decision to LIPA and the state Department of Public Service.

Ditkowsky is no stranger to consumer action. In 2005, she gained national attention after complaining about a paltry settlement for her faulty TV. President George W. Bush had her appear with him in Washington, D.C., to help push through class-action lawsuit reform.

PSEG, which serves as LIPA’s claims agent, said it gives careful consideration to all customer claims. Spokeswoman Kristina Pappas said the utility “diligently reviews and evaluates every claim on a case-by-case basis.” The utility said it isn’t responsible for events “beyond its control,” including “unanticipated equipment failure, damage to the grid by third parties, accidents and food spoilage.”

Typical of paid claims, Pappas said, are situations in which a worker in a truck damages a customer’s lawn or driveway. She noted PSEG has enhanced the claims process on its website and added an online claims submission option.

Ditkowsky says utility officials told her years ago that the outage problem at her house was the result of her neighborhood having been switched to a different section of the grid.

“This was not without consequences as we were subject to repeated power failures, sometimes extended periods of time,” Ditkowsky wrote to PSEG in an appeal letter after the utility declined her claim.

“In this instance, the weather was actually nice when we experienced the power outage and surge. With a surge protector, our computer and accessories were blown.”

Ditkowsky argued that damage to their computer stemmed from neglect of the power grid in their neighborhood, which she said had experienced chronic outages over the years. If the problem that caused her outage was the result of failure to upgrade her section of the grid, why shouldn’t that allow for reimbursement? “They have to maintain their equipment,” she said, suggesting negligence.

PSEG didn’t see it that way.

“I have reviewed your claim which was denied for the reason that unpredictable equipment failure on a portion of the distribution circuit supplying your home resulted in service problems,” wrote John Cashin, a claims manager. He cited the LIPA tariff and the negligence clause in concluding: “Our investigation had found that LIPA and PSEGLI were not negligent.”

Faced with similar outcomes, other PSEG customers grudgingly resort to insurance claims.

Suzanne Marciano of Wantagh filed a claim with PSEG, arguing that a corroded bracket on an aging utility pole in her yard caused an electrical wire to fall to the ground, causing a fire in her yard in September 2015 that destroyed a fence and other property valued at $12,000.

After years of attempting to get PSEG to pay, and even consulting with a lawyer, she ended up filing a claim with her insurance company, which she said ultimately dropped her after paying off that and another damage claim. A lawyer declined to take her case, she said.

“You can’t win,” Marciano said. “So how is this OK? How do government officials allow this?”

Customer claims:

2014 — 2,548*1,645**

2015 — 2,4101,689

2016 — 2,4701,834

*Total claims. About 80 percent are closed without payment

**Claims for customer home equipment: About 85 percent closed without payment

Source: PSEG Long Island

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