A state appeals court has upheld a lower court’s ruling that two utilities were not liable for failing to turn off electricity and gas during Superstorm Sandy, a failure that homeowners argued contributed to the destruction of their bungalow community by fire.
In a 24-page decision issued by the appellate division on Friday, the court found both Jersey Central Power & Light, the electric utility, and New Jersey Natural Gas, the gas utility, had no duty to suspend service to Camp Osborn, a 68-unit bungalow community on the Barnegat Peninsula in Brick Township, prior to the storm.
The decision essentially followed previous rulings by the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and a Superior Court judge, which found state law did not require such an action in the event of such a weather emergency.
In fact, the BPU argued that preemptively shutting off gas and electric services to a large section of the shore ‘’spanning several counties would have caused much more harm than continuing coverage for as many customers as possible during and after the storm.’’
The plaintiffs did not contest the agency’s decision but appealed the question of whether the utilities had a “common law duty’’ to suspend service to Camp Osborn. The appeals court sided with a lower court, which ruled the utilities acted properly.
“While it may have been possible to shut down all electric and gas service to customers in Camp Osborn, accomplishing this task would have caused numerous logistical and technical problems resulting in serious adverse consequences for thousands of utility customers, including citizens, hospitals, emergency rescue units, and government services across an extremely large geographic area,” the court ruled.
In essence, the appellate division concluded “it was impossible to predict with any reliability where, and even if, Superstorm Sandy would strike the New Jersey coast, or more specifically, plaintiffs’ small community.’’
Shortly after the superstorm made landfall in 2012 near Brigantine, the Brick Township Fire Department got a call about exploding transformers and a fire at the Camp Osborn properties. The department attempted to reach the peninsula, but all routes were impassable. About 68 properties were destroyed, according to news reports. A report by the department concluded the cause of the fire could not be determined.
The properties have not yet been rebuilt, although a planning board earlier this year approved a redevelopment plan for a portion of the peninsula. A lack of consensus among residents on how to rebuild and legal challenges have hindered the redevelopment of the area.