Utilities Commission Had No Jurisdiction Over Negligence Suit

When a plaintiff brought a negligence action against two public utility companies for damages allegedly done to her real property when the gas was turned off and waters pipes subsequently froze and burst, the trial court erred by holding that the Tennessee Public Utility Commission (TPUC) had exclusive jurisdiction of the claim. In Jetter v. Piedmont Natural Gas Company, Inc., No. M2019-00206-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 14, 2019), plaintiff owned an unoccupied residence which was “damaged when frozen water pipes ruptured during the winter after gas service to the property was terminated.” Plaintiff filed this negligence suit, alleging that defendant public utility companies failed to provide her with proper notice of their actions and failed to “take proper steps to reconnect the service.” In her complaint, plaintiff cited certain TPUC rules that were allegedly violated by defendants.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the TPUC “had exclusive and original jurisdiction over the claims at issue.” According to defendants, the TPUC rules cited by plaintiff in her complaint could only be enforced by the TPUC. Defendants also argued that the administrative remedy set up by the TPUC rules was not exhausted by plaintiff before she filed this suit.

The trial court agreed with defendant and dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The appellate opinion consisted mostly of quoted language from an Amicus Curiae brief filed by the TPUC which urged the Court to overturn dismissal. The TPUC explained:

The case before this Court is an action in tort, alleging damage to real property of the Plaintiff[.] …TPUC is an administrative agency, not a court, and does not possess statutory authority to adjudicate cases in tort. …

The Amended Complaint does not seek injunctive or other relief that would serve to force compliance with the rules or to impose civil penalties that may be applicable for the violation of such rules. Instead, it would appear from the plain language of the Amended Complaint that [plaintiff] utilizes the cited rules and regulations to establish causes of action sounding in negligence per se. …

The present case before this Court does not allege a dispute concerning billing, threatened disconnection of service, or other matters that are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Commission. Rather, …the causes of action seek damages resulting from alleged instances of negligence and/or negligence per se. A thorough examination of the enumerated supervisory and regulatory power and jurisdiction of the Commission reveals no statutory authority to resolve disputes alleging negligence, nor to award damages for such disputes.

After explaining that the TPUC did not have jurisdiction over this claim, the Court also rejected defendants’ assertion that plaintiff was required to exhaust any possible administrative remedies before filing suit. The Court stated that “the exhaustion of administrative remedies is not an absolute prerequisite for relief unless a statute makes such requirement by its plain language.” (internal citation omitted).

After noting that defendants no longer contested jurisdiction, dismissal was reversed and the case was remanded to the trial court.