Are Utility Companies Required to Inspect Their Poles and Power Lines?

Several laws outline when utility companies must conduct power line inspections to prevent electrocution

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Would you believe that the average age of a wooden power line pole is 40 years old? Some are even 85 to 100 years old. That means power companies must be meticulous in the timing and thoroughness of their inspections of the poles and power lines, in order to protect the public and maintenance workers from electrocution.

There are several case laws that outline the responsibilities of utility companies to inspect their poles and power lines. Below are some important legal factors on the timing of inspections.

Types of power line inspections

As attorney Jeffrey Feldman discusses in the video above, there are two different types of inspections power companies must conduct to ensure their structures are in working order.

  1. A facilities inspection concentrates on the lines and pole top devices, hardware and attachments that are supported on the structures (poles). Inspectors are to look for broken, deteriorated or failing equipment, lines, braces, insulators, pins, transformers, insulator ties, crossarms, etc. These are often performed at two levels – drive-by inspections and detailed inspection.
  1. A structure inspection looks for damage to wooden poles and other structures. Wood poles lose strength over time, due to many factors. The National Electric Safety Code (NESC) recognizes this, and requires a safety factor for greater overload capacity at the time of original installation, than at replacement.

Frequency of inspections

The NESC recognizes that the timing and  frequency of inspections will vary by utility companies, due to differences in equipment, conditions, geographies, weather and environmental factors and expectations for problems.

Many utility companies use a five-year inspection cycle, though some are more frequent, and some with low population density and low deterioration/decay rates are longer than five years.

Wooden poles are typically inspected in cycles of five and 12 years, depending on the age of the poles and the utility company. If poles rot and fall, then the overhead structures and wires will come down, posing an immense electrocution hazard.

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Case law on frequency of power structure inspections

As our attorneys discussed on our webpage about the legal responsibilities of utility companies to protect the public, an electrical company  has a duty to “make reasonable inspections of wires and other instrumentalities in order to discover and remedy hazards and defects,” according to Thornton v Ark. Valley Elec. Coop. Corp.

What amounts to ‘reasonable inspections’ is a question of fact for a jury to decide. And how often the inspections should be made will depend on the circumstances of the particular case, according to Andrews v Appalachian Electric Power Co.

Inspections by power companies of utility lines should be “reasonably frequent,” according to Couch v Pac Gas & Electric Company. Failure to comply with this rule charges the power company with notice of a defective or dangerous condition.

The reasonableness of the inspection depends not only on the condition of the line but also on the nature of the danger to be feared, under  Olivedell Planting Co v Town of Lake Providence. For instance, a hanging wire will present a very dangerous situation, so the reasonableness for an inspection will be very stringent. In Olivedell, the court held that a broken wire that was hanging for nearly 30 hours, for which the defendant was not aware of, was negligent. This was because “it is not easy to find a good excuse for leaving such a danger,” especially where it was so likely the people would encounter the wire almost every hour it was broken there. 

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Case law on timing of inspections

The length of time before inspection will depend upon what event occurs. For example, in Roberts v Pac Gas & Electric Company, a tree fell and pulled down a wire. The wire was laying on the ground, covered by the tree, for two and a half months while it partially blocked the roadway. The case law states:

“Notice of a defect, in order to charge the company with liability therefore, need not be direct and express; it is enough that the defect has existed for such a length of time that it should have been known.”

The lack of inspection for two and a half months created a presumption of constructive notice and thus negligence for failing to inspect. And the fact that the electrical company did not inspect the line at all during the two and a half months the line was down constituted negligence for failing to reasonably inspect. 

When courts rule in favor of utility companies on inspection timing

In Weissert v Escanaba, the court held that “in the absence of special circumstances, the inspection of defendant’s lines once a month where they go through this wooded territory and sparsely settled community was the exercise of reasonable care.”

In Weissert, the city of Escanaba had power lines running throughout the city and a wooded area. An electrical engineer and state highway men would patrol the line to inspect the line and to see if any branches needed to be cut down. After a rain and wind storm, the power line was down, hanging about two feet above the ground. The plaintiff, a 12-year- old boy, went up and touched the line, suffering severe injuries.

The court reasoned the line could not have been down for more than eight or 10 hours and could have been down for only a few minutes. The storm that caused this line to come down was not “of such severity as to cause any alarm or even arouse a suspicion that an electric line might be torn from its mooring by the falling of a tree or a branch.” The inspections that defendant did were reasonable because as soon as the defendant learned of the downed line, they immediately went to fix it.