Long Island Power Authority power lines along the North Shore...

Long Island Power Authority power lines along the North Shore Rail Trail in Mount Sinai on Nov. 17, 2023. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

A federal judge whose family home in Suffolk County was destroyed by an electrical fire he blames on a faulty transformer and LIPA and PSEG’s negligence is demanding more than half a million dollars from the utility to recoup uninsured losses, according to a suit filed in state Supreme Court.

But whether Judge Gary Brown of the U.S. District Court in Central Islip, a former federal prosecutor, will get relief in the case remains uncertain. His lawyer, John McEntee, has complained in numerous court filings about the difficulty in getting the utility’s Buffalo-based lawyer to produce documents and witnesses for deposition, and the case has dragged on without a trial since 2019.

Brown in an affidavit filed in the case said the April 22, 2019 fire “destroyed the single-family residence where my family and I had resided for nearly 20 years.” It has since been rebuilt but uninsured costs left him with bills exceeding $515,000, court documents show.

PSEG and the Long Island Power Authority declined comment, citing the pending litigation. LIPA owns the electrical system and farms out its management to PSEG under a contract that expires at the end of 2025. 

McEntee in filings said he has repeatedly sought access to documents, equipment and utility workers over the course of the litigation, but the utility’s attorney has repeatedly objected to the requests and delayed scheduled depositions.

The transformer Brown alleges was the cause of the fire was replaced just weeks after the fire and subsequently destroyed. The utility’s lawyer in court papers denies the transformer caused the blaze.

In his affidavit, Brown noted that just over a month after the fire, he saw men “replacing the transformer supplying electrical service to the residence at the time of the fire.” He spoke to the foreman, from Haugland Energy Group, a subcontractor to the utility, who “told me the transformer was obsolete and insufficient for its intended purpose,” after 30 years at the location. The transformer, which steps down voltage for use in homes, lacked “sufficient capacity to work properly,” the foreman told Brown, according to the affidavit.

PSEG, according to Brown's affidavit, “reported to LIPA that a search for records revealed no responsive records.” But “because I had witnessed the transformer replacement, I knew that records of the replacement of the transformer had to exist,” Brown said.

One of the documents Brown did receive under FOIL was a screenshot of a computer page listing work done on his street to replace a “defective distribution pole” and remove and install a transformer in early June 2019.

Another document produced was a one-page report of a meeting that took place at Brown’s home on May 10 to inspect electrical equipment. All the information about the meeting is redacted.

Brown also took exception to the utility’s claim that he had an “engineering consultant” who both inspected the transformer and waived Brown’s right to inspect it himself. As Brown noted, the transformer at the time had been located atop the pole and Brown didn’t have an engineering consultant or a bucket truck to inspect it himself at the time. The transformer was replaced less than a month later.

Brown has also noted that his attorney sent a letter to PSEG and LIPA demanding that “all evidence relating to the fire be preserved” weeks after the fire.

“I am familiar with litigation hold notices, as I service as a United States District Court Judge and previously served as a United State Magistrate Judge, a federal prosecutor and chief litigation counsel for CA Technologies, and I reasonably expected that [LIPA/PSEG] would comply with their obligation to preserve evidence by preserving the transformer,” Brown said in his sworn statement.

A PSEG representative was scheduled for a deposition in the case by Brown’s attorney this week. A conference in the case, before acting Supreme Court Justice Paul Hensley in Riverhead, is scheduled for July 9, with no trial date set as yet.

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