BGE sued over exploding light bulbs, burning wires
Published: June 20, 2012
The owner and tenant of an Anne Arundel County home have sued Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., claiming the power company has allowed power surges to spark fires and destroy the home’s wiring.
Catricia Lankford, who lives in the 2,648-square-foot house on Cottonwood Drive in Lothian, and Linda Reynolds, who has owned the house since 1993, filed suit in Anne Arundel Circuit court on May 7. They claim $430,000 in damages.
BGE has known about the problem for years, the plaintiffs say, but declined to fix it. Late last year the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC) took the utility’s word that Lankford had not complained at all.
Complaints about damage from BGE’s actions (or inactions) are fairly rare, according to Regina Davis, a PSC spokeswoman. Last year there were 57 complaints—but only five or 10 were related to electric surges. She said the commission does not comment about specific complaints.
In some damage cases, the responsible party is hard to determine. Baltimore City’s Department of Public Works initially took responsibility when a gas main break in February in Southwest Baltimore resulted in water damage to appliances in about 45 homes, according to a June 6 Baltimore Sun story. But the city has since declined to reimburse those residents, saying it’s not responsible.
BGE, meanwhile, has a special legal status that makes plaintiffs prove not just negligence, but gross negligence, a considerably higher standard.
Lankford and Reynolds’ trouble started, the women say, in January of 2010. Lankford noticed her lights suddenly getting bright and then dimming. She reported it to BGE, which sent out a technician who told her everything was fine.
The surging continued throughout the summer, according to the lawsuit. Light bulbs started bursting, sending sparks and glass flying. She called the company more than 20 times to complain, according to the suit.
On Sept. 25, 2010, during a birthday party at the home, a high-voltage electrical surge destroyed the home’s entertainment center, sparking a fire in the house, according to the complaint. Lankford’s 3-year-old grandson and his friends ran outside as the house filled with acrid smoke. They heard loud popping in the walls for a half-hour after the fire was extinguished, according to the lawsuit.
A BGE emergency crew came the next day, and a technician found the voltage in the home fluctuating up to 260 volts, according to the lawsuit. Normal household voltage is 110-120 volts.
The technicians turned off the electricity for two days and patched the neutral wire, which runs underground to the transformer.
Lankford bought a new stove, refrigerator, microwave, and other things, she says. A total of 41 appliances and pieces of furniture were destroyed in that first incident, according to the lawsuit. She says her renter’s insurance company told her it was BGE’s fault and paid her nothing.
There were two more major incidents after that.
BGE sent technicians, who patched the neutral wire again and put what Lankford calls a “boot” on her service line, which was meant to regulate the flow of electricity, and several “boxes” that were supposed to monitor and record any surging.
But the surging continued. In January of 2011 Lankford flipped a light switch and her power went off for nine days, the suit says.
“Generally, I knew to be really careful ’cause when the sparks come out of the outlet, something big is going to happen,” Lankford says during a June 8 interview at the Crofton office of Trunnell Law LLC, which is representing the women. The surges that led up to that incident cost her three TVs, two computers, “and several other pieces of household electrical equipment,” according to the suit.
Lankford says she quit her job at a Pittsburgh funeral home because she feared for the safety of her daughter, Charity, who is now 19.
In March 2011 Lankford got a call from David Duvall, who told her he was a contract worker for BGE who would replace the transformer outside her home. Duvall said he could not do the work until April 22, nearly two months hence. Duvall agreed with Lankford that transformers are usually a top priority, but said he was just a subcontractor and had told BGE about his schedule.
On April 21 surging was so bad Lankford called BGE again. An official there confirmed there was an appointment the next day for transformer work, but the company also sent out another technician on April 22. That technician cut power to the house and called an emergency crew to rewire the outside service wire to the property. They took several days to do the job, and Duvall, the transformer tech, never showed up.
During that time Lankford spoke to Tracy Gambrill, who identified herself as the secretary to the president of BGE, according to the suit. Lankford threatened legal action and to contact the PSC about the problems. This resulted in three work crews coming the next day to finish the rewiring job, which was done on April 27.
Still the transformer had not been touched.
The surging continued through the summer and fall of 2011. More TVs, a microwave, and the home’s well pump were claimed by the surges, according to the lawsuit. In October 2011 Lankford got BGE to send another technician, finally, to check the transformer.
What happened next, according to Lankford’s account, was Kafkaesque.
Word came from BGE that the transformer would not be serviced because there is another residence hooked to it and no one from that house had ever called to complain.
The meter in question goes to an uninhabited 20-by-40-foot shed on the same property. The technician told the BGE representative, but BGE would not budge.
After another outage in early December 2011, Lankford filed a complaint with the PSC, she says. Four days later she received a call back. “We have contacted BGE and they say you never contacted them,” Lankford says the state regulator told her. Lankford says she replied that she had three letters from BGE acknowledging her contacts and the problem. The state regulator told her to file again in 30 days.
“They opened and closed my complaint during the same conversation,” Lankford says. She did not file again with the PSC.
On Dec. 27 and Jan. 7 there was significant surging. Lankford called BGE and Joe Ricks, another BGE representative, came to her home. Ricks pulled the monitor box off her line to get a reading.
“I went out to read it with him,” Lankford says. “They’re all very honest, the technicians, they’re good boys. Joe says, ‘It’s all over the place.’ He said he would go to the office to download the numbers.” Lankford says she told him she wanted a copy of the readout, and Ricks told her that he would send it.
She says she never got the reading.
A BGE spokeswoman says the company does not comment on pending litigation.
Matthew Skipper, Lankford and Reynolds’ lawyer, says the suit could have easily been avoided.
“All BGE had to do was fix the problem, and we would not be here today,” he says. “For nearly two and a half years, BGE simply did the minimum, failing to fix the dangerous condition. In the meantime, they were putting Ms. Lankford’s and her daughter Charity’s lives in danger.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.