Articles Posted in Utilities Law

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Plaintiff Kathleen Langlois owned a building with commercial space on the first floor and an apartment on the second. She failed to pay the water bill for the property. Plaintiff alleged that she arranged with a representative of the Town of Proctor to disconnect the water service so she would not incur further water expenses, but that the Town failed to do so. In reliance on the Town's promised undertaking, plaintiff discontinued heating the building, causing the pipes containing water to freeze and split under the first floor of the building, which, in turn, flooded the first floor and basement, causing extensive damage to the building. Plaintiff brought this action with four counts: negligence, breach of contract, consumer fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. With respect to the negligence count, the Town argued that it had no duty to disconnect the water service or to disconnect the service with reasonable care or, alternatively, that any duty was based on its contractual obligations and could not give rise to tort liability. With respect to the contract claim, the Town argued that it had no contractual obligation to disconnect the water service and that it was exercising its right under a statutory delinquency collection procedure. It further argued that the contractual relationship between plaintiff and the Town was terminated when plaintiff failed to pay her water bill. The case was then tried before a jury, which rendered a verdict for plaintiff. In answering the special interrogatories, the jury found that there was a contract between plaintiff and the Town "regarding the turning off of her water service," but that the Town had not breached that contract. It found that the Town was negligent, that its negligence was a proximate cause of harm to plaintiff, and that plaintiff's damages were $64,918.44. Among the things the Town argued on appeal, it argued that the court should have instructed the jury to apply comparative negligence, and that the instructions on damages were erroneous because the proper measure of damages was the diminution in value of the building and, in any event, there was no evidence of that diminution. Plaintiff cross-appealed, arguing that the jury instructions improperly failed to allow the jury to find that the Town breached its duty of good faith and fair dealing. The Supreme Court rejected the Town's argument on appeal that it had no tort duty to properly turn off plaintiff's water. However, the Court found that the trial court erred in instructing the jury: "the instructions as a whole did not contain the spirit of the law. If we could determine from the damages award or the interrogatories that the jury found that plaintiff was not negligent and was not obligated to mitigate damages, we could find an absence of prejudice. We cannot do so here; the damages awarded by the jury were less than plaintiff claimed." On remand, the trial court was ordered to instruct the jury on comparative negligence. Because of the defect in the jury instructions, the Court did not address the remaining issues on appeal. The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial. View "Langlois v. Town of Proctor" on Justia Law