The Michigan Court of Appeals recently remanded a case with instructions for the lower court to order summary judgment in favor of the defendant electric company because the plaintiff could not provide sufficient proof of a causal link between the power shutoff and the injuries alleged.
Robert Ruffins, who suffers from dementia, had his electricity shut off by defendant DTE Electric Company. The plaintiff, Ruffins’ brother and conservator, sued DTE for Ruffins’ injuries allegedly arising from the power shutoff. The plaintiff testified at trial that he knew his brother’s bills from DTE were past due and had told him what he owed. Ruffins apparently did not follow his brother’s advice because in January 2013, DTE disconnected Ruffins’ meter for failure to pay. Later that evening, Ruffins’ cousin came over to find him naked, cold, covered in diarrhea, and unresponsive on his bedroom floor. Ruffins now resides in a nursing home and requires constant care.
The plaintiff alleged that DTE caused Ruffins’ injuries by failing to provide notice of the shutoff in accordance with a Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) administrative agency rule. DTE filed a motion for summary disposition, arguing that the plaintiff failed to establish a duty or breach of duty and noting that the administrative rule on which the plaintiff relied did not exist at the time of the incident. Alternatively, DTE argued that the doctrine of primary jurisdiction would apply if there were any questions of fact concerning whether DTE had complied with MPSC rules and regulations. That is, the MPSC was the proper adjudicative forum. The trial court denied DTE’s motion without prejudice and allowed the plaintiff to amend his complaint.
In the plaintiff’s amended complaint, he added a new allegation of Michigan Administrative Code, Rule 460.141 (Manner of Shutoff). The plaintiff specifically claimed that DTE violated Rule 460.141 when its employee failed to identify himself to Ruffins prior to the shutoff, failed to announce to Ruffins his intent to shut off the power, failed to provide Ruffins with an opportunity to pay the bill, and failed to leave a written notice of shutoff. DTE filed a renewed motion for summary disposition, raising the same issues in the original motion plus an additional allegation of the plaintiff’s failure to establish an issue of fact regarding causation. The trial court denied the motion, but it dismissed the case without prejudice and transferred it to the MPSC under the doctrine of primary jurisdiction. The plaintiff appealed the primary jurisdiction ruling, while DTE cross-appealed the trial court’s denial of summary disposition.
On appeal, the court assumed for the purpose of the analysis that DTE owed Ruffins a legal duty consistent with the MPSC rules on providing notice directly before electricity is shut off and that DTE breached this duty as alleged by the plaintiff. The court held that nonetheless, the plaintiff failed to create a genuine issue of material fact regarding causation. The plaintiff’s entire lawsuit, the court reasoned, was premised on the alleged lack of proper notice at the time the electrical service was shut off. The court concluded, however, that the case was overly speculative regarding whether the lack of notice resulted in the weakened state in which Ruffins was discovered by his cousin.
First, there was undisputed evidence that Ruffins had received several past-due notices, that Ruffins had the funds to pay the DTE bill, that the plaintiff had pleaded with Ruffins to pay the bill, that DTE made two attempts to call Ruffins by phone prior to the shutoff, and that Ruffins still did not pay the bill. Moreover, there was no indication that once the power was turned off, Ruffins took any steps to contact DTE to take care of his outstanding bill or to otherwise check on the matter, nor did Ruffins contact family members about the situation. A jury would have had to engage in pure conjecture to find a causal link. DTE could not be blamed, the court reasoned, for the unfortunate role Ruffins’ dementia played in his reaction to the shutoff because DTE had no knowledge of it.
Moreover, the court found no evidence that the lack of notice or electricity actually caused Ruffins’ medical condition. The plaintiff pointed to a medical letter from a doctor that reflected an opinion that Ruffins had suffered a serious injury that resulted in a significant loss of cognitive function. This evidence, however, did not necessarily link the harm to the presumed lack of notice or the lack of electricity. The plaintiff did not present evidence from which a jury could conclude that more likely than not, but for DTE’s conduct or failures, the injuries would not have occurred.
The plaintiff finally argued that summary disposition relative to causation would be premature because there was still time remaining for discovery. The court held to the contrary that the plaintiff failed to identify the nature of any discovery requests that could produce evidence creating a genuine issue of material fact on causation.
Since DTE was entitled to summary disposition with respect to the element of causation, and since causation — as opposed to rule violations — is not a matter for the MPSC to adjudicate, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s primary jurisdiction ruling and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of DTE.
Personal injury lawyer Kelly Neumann at the Neumann Law Group represents victims of accidents throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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