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Sue over power outages?

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published November 16. 2012 4:00AM

On the spectrum of intolerance over the latest storm-related power outages, I put myself somewhere in the middle.

I was frustrated by the inconvenience, just like everyone else who lost power for more than four or five days. It's true, too, that days went by when I didn't see any power crews anywhere in my town.

Still, I tend toward patience with the power companies in instances like this. It was big weather, a hurricane of historic proportions. A lot of trees came down. Of course it was hard to get the power back on.

I haven't heard many people suggest the power companies did a good job. But maybe they did.

Some politicians, to appease the angry, have promised tough new investigations, even more legislation pertaining to widespread power outages, which already trigger automatic public review.

Connecticut's biggest power company itself says it will conduct a self-examination of its response to Sandy, as it does with every storm.

"Our review will also incorporate feedback we've received from our customers, town officials and legislators," said Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power. "We see every storm as a learning experience and will be working with all 149 communities we serve to see where further improvements might be made."

I wonder, though, if a new tactic being deployed in New Jersey and Long Island might not be a good approach to hold the power companies here accountable and find out if they are doing a good job cleaning up after storms.

Lawyers announced this week plans to bring lawsuits, class-action suits if necessary, on behalf of customers who lost power in those other two states hit hard by Sandy.

Gross said Thursday it wouldn't be appropriate to comment on the lawsuits in those other states. And he said he has heard of no similar suits getting under way in Connecticut.

Class-action lawsuits in general sometimes have a way of enabling corporate accountability.

I suspect many executives, including those of big utilities, might be more fearful of punishing damages from a lawsuit than regulatory interventions by lawmakers pandering to angry constituents.

More worrisome to the utilities, too, may be the notion of being at the mercy of jurors who have lost their own power for days on end. It might be harder these days to seat a jury with someone who hasn't experienced a long power loss.

In any case, the fact-finding of a lawsuit can be thorough and revealing. Class-action lawsuits might be a good way to settle the question of whether power companies are doing all they can and should to get the electricity flowing again after a storm.

If they aren't, they may have to compensate customers, for everything from homeowners' spoiled food to businesses' lost days of commerce.

Then again, maybe we will find that the companies did all they could under trying circumstances.

At least we could let the lawyers investigate, rather than the government.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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