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Claim of utility negligence during superstorm Sandy heading for trial

The case alleges that LIPA and National Grid failed to shut down power in the Rockaways, leading to fires that destroyed 100 homes.

A state Supreme Court Justice this week denied LIPA and National Grid’s request to dismiss a case by more than 120 homeowners and six insurance companies alleging the utility was negligent in failing to shut down power in the Rockaways as superstorm Sandy swamped the peninsula.

The ruling by Queens state Supreme Court Justice Bernice D. Siegal paves the way for a consolidated trial in the $80 million case that could take place this summer or fall, said Keith Sullivan, an attorney for homeowners. They allege that more than 100 homes were destroyed by electrical fires  resulting from LIPA's and National Grid’s lack of a plan to turn off the power as floodwaters swamped the region. A pretrial conference is set for May 13. LIPA and National Grid said they intend to appeal the court's recent ruling. 

In her written order, Siegal rejected claims by LIPA and National Grid that they were duty bound to keep the lights on for critical care services, among other factors.

National Grid and LIPA "could have and should have developed written protocols" for turning off power during a storm, Siegal wrote, "and could have studied and planned in advance when and where de-energization is required and how it must be accomplished.

"Decisions concerning how and when to respond to an approaching hurricane should not be made on the spur of the moment," she wrote. 

Sullivan called the ruling a "tremendous victory."

“LIPA and National Grid were a deer in the headlights when that storm came,” he said. “They completely ignored the severity of [weather] warnings, and had no policy and procedures in place as to when to shut down the electric grid. They completely abandoned the Rockaways.”

Zachary Murdock, an outside lawyer for LIPA in the case, said, “We disagree with the court’s rulings and intend to appeal them." 

National Grid, which operated the electric grid under contract to LIPA until 2014, in a statement said, "We disagree with the court’s decisions and intend to pursue an appeal." PSEG Long Island took over management of the grid in 2014 after a competitive bidding process. 

Siegal in her ruling also denied the companies' attempt to separate the cases into three trials.

The case, initially filed in July 2013, was one of several filed by ratepayers in the aftermath of Sandy, which cut power to more than 950,000 of LIPA's 1.1 million customers. The utility argued that keeping on power to the Rockaways was "prudent." 

“We believe that keeping the power on to critical care facilities, first responders and customers’ homes in the Rockaways was both sensible and consistent with prudent utility practice,” Murdock said. “We look forward to presenting our position at trial.”

London-based National Grid maintains that it "at all times managed and operated the electrical system on the Rockaway Peninsula in a reasonable and prudent manner.” 

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