Last week the Texas Supreme Court issued one opinion and no grants. This blog discusses this opinion, which provides guidance on several important issues.
First, in In re CenterPoint Energy Houston Electric LLC, Relator, the Texas Supreme Court considered whether the Public Utility Commission (“commission”) has exclusive jurisdiction over common-law negligence claims that underlie the plaintiff’s claims. In this case, the plaintiffs sued after good Samaritan, Glenn Higgins, was fatally electrocuted after stopping to assist in a car wreck that downed a power pole. The good Samaritan’s family members and estate brought wrongful-death and survival claims against CenterPoint, alleging that CenterPoint has a duty to design, construct, operate, and maintain its electricity-distribution system to de-energize portions of the lines as soon as they can when there are faults or something such as this occurs. The Plaintiff’s argue that had the electricity-distribution system been working correctly, the power would have been cut in seconds – preventing anyone from being electrocuted. They also assert that (1) the Texas Estate Code gave the probate court exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate this case, (2) the Utilities Code provisions conferring jurisdiction on the Public Utility Commission did not apply because the plaintiffs were not their customers and (3) the electrical operations and services at issue did not fall within the utility commission’s jurisdiction because it does not regulate line-protection systems. CenterPoint’s jurisdictional plea was denied by the probate court and the appellate court denied CenterPoint’s mandamus relief.
The Texas Supreme Court held that the Public Utility Regulatory Act’s pervasive regulatory scheme did not give the Public Utility Commission exclusive jurisdiction because the decedent and the plaintiffs are not “affected persons” and the parties’ dispute did not involve a commission regulatory action. An affected person, under the Public Utility Regulatory Act, may file a complaint with the utility commission, but the plaintiffs’ claims did not fall within the scope of the act’s jurisdiction to adjudicate complaints. The commission has no inherent authority and may only exercise the powers conferred upon it by the Legislature as an administrative agency. Thus, because the Plaintiffs brought claims for wrongful death and survival, the probate court has concurrent and not exclusive jurisdiction over their claims.
Further, the Estates Code does not prevent the commission from exercising exclusive jurisdiction over issues in its purview that are brought in probate court, but the commission does not have the exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate common-law questions such as the Plaintiffs. The Court agrees with CenterPoint that the Plaintiffs; claims were about CenterPoint’s operations. An issue regarding fuse size is one that the public Utility Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to regulate but they have decided not to exercise. There is no indication that the Legislature intended the commission to resolve issued based on a tariff where no tariff provisions alter the applicable legal standards.