A full moon shines over the State House in Augusta early in the morning on Feb. 19, 2019. Credit: Photo courtesy of Ron Lovaglio

A bill to limit electric utilities’ exemption from being held liable when their negligence of overhead high-voltage lines contributes to personal injuries or property damage advanced this week out of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Most other businesses, including gas utilities, do not currently have the same liability exemption. LD 840, sponsored by Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, stemmed from a 2002 incident in which Bryan Smith, a boatyard worker in Penobscot who was 18 at the time, was nearly killed and suffered permanent injuries from contact through a boat mast with a Central Maine Power Co. line that was kept at 30 feet of clearance, despite repeated requests that the utility move it to the legally required 45.5 feet.

In this July 13, 2021, file photo, standing in front of a bust of the late Gov. Percival Baxter at the Maine State House, state Rep. Seth Berry speaks in Augusta about the governor’s veto of a bill he sponsored to replace the state’s privately owned electric utilities with a consumer-owned utility. Credit: David Sharp / AP

The line was installed in 1951 and it had not been changed between then and 2002, according to Smith’s attorney, Barry Mills of Ellsworth. CMP had been informed that the line was too low on at least three previous occasions.

Smith sued CMP and in 2008 won more than $6 million in damages after a judge found that he had sustained a 42 percent impairment injury as a result of the electrocution.

CMP in turn successfully sued the owners of Devereaux Marina to recover the amount of that award under Maine’s Overhead High-Voltage Safety Act. CMP collected the liability insurance proceeds that were available from the boatyard, and forgave the rest of the debt.

Mills called the statute “an anomaly” in Maine law.

“I know of no other instance in our law that provides, when the combined negligence of two or more persons or corporations causes injury, only one is responsible,” he testified before lawmakers.

Under the current law, the individual or business that is responsible for the activities taking place near an overhead high voltage line bears the financial responsibility for failing to take the required actions that would avoid that harm. If passed and signed into law, Berry’s bill would repeal that provision and allow the owner of an overhead line to also be held liable if it shares some of the blame.

“This bill will help prevent electrocutions by creating greater parity between electricity and gas utilities regarding their liability for the hazards associated with their infrastructure, particularly when poor maintenance leads to tragedy,” said Berry, who has been one of the Legislature’s chief critics of CMP and a key proponent of replacing the state’s investor-owned utilities with a consumer-owned operation.

CMP initially opposed the bill but supported the measure the committee approved, according to Catherine Hartnett, manager of corporate communications of Avangrid, CMP’s parent company. 

“As we presented in our testimony, working safely and ensuring customer safety is a fundamental value at CMP,” she said. “Guided by this principle CMP did in fact agree to the amended version of LD 840 that passed and we are very pleased that the resulting bill will protect the public and ensure responsibility for overhead line safety.”

Smith did not submit testimony, but Andrea Devereux, the boatyard’s former owner, testified in support of the measure.

“This was a tragic and devastating experience,” she said. “I would give anything to have been able to protect Bryan more, but I can’t do that. I also can’t ask you to go back and change the law so that things turned out differently for me, or for my family, or our business. 

“I am just here today because I hope you will change the law, so that CMP at least shares a little bit more responsibility for the hazards their lines can create when they are poorly and illegally maintained,” she said.

The bill faces further votes in the House and Senate in the coming weeks.