Installation of Fence Cut Neighbor’s Underground Electrical Lines:

This was originally posted on the SGR Blog.

But Repairs Increased the Value of the Damaged Property

Homeowners William Bartle and Robert Whitman sued Poly Enterprises in City Court of Little Fall, Herkimer County, for $4,152 for damage to an underground electrical line during the installation of a fence. The lawsuit went to trial before the Court.

There was no substantial factual difference in the testimony. There was some disagreement about whether or not the homeowners approved the actual location of fence in proximity to the marked underground electrical lines. The essential disagreement was about whether or not the Poly was liable for electrical wires that were damaged during the course of the fence installation. The Court did not find it necessary to decide whether or not the homeowners approved the location of the fence because Poly would still have a duty to keep from breaching the electrical lines.

It was uncontroverted that Poly installed the fence on or about August 4, 2021. It was also uncontroverted that the homeowners lost electricity on or about October 11, 2021. The homeowners then paid $712.08 for four nights at a hotel, and $3,440 to Engler Electric Inc. to identify and remedy the problem with the electric. The invoice for the installation indicated the problem with the electric was that the underground line was allegedly damaged by the fence installation.

The Court was called upon to determine whether or not Poly was liable for damage to an underground electric line during the course of the fence installation, and to adjudicate the claim in such manner as to do substantial justice between the parties according to the rules of substantive law.

The Court found that Poly Enterprises owed a duty to install the fence in a safe and workmanlike manner, that the duty was breached when the electric line near one of the footings became compromised and caused the electric line to stop working, and that the improper fence installation was a substantial factor in the line’s failure.

The next question related to damages. In this case, the damages were substantial and the repairs seemed to have put the property in a better position than it was before the repairs. Before the repair the line was laying in the ground without a protective barrier. Following the repair, the line was placed in PVC conduit so that it was now protected to some extent from a second breach.

If the injury is not so great as to make the reparation or restoration of the property unreasonable or out of proportion to the condition and value before the injury, the reasonable cost of repairs necessary to put the article in the condition in which it was before the injury will be considered the proper measure of damages.

Indeed, in a given case, the cost of repairs which restore the property to its former condition may well be the best criterion of diminution in value. However, recovery on the basis of the reasonable cost of repairs to restore the property to its former condition is permitted subject to two limitations that: (1) the cost of repairs must be less than the diminution in the market value due to the injury; and (2) the repairs must not exceed the value of the property as it was before the injury. The plaintiff is not entitled to benefit by the loss and where repairs placed the property in a better condition than before the accident, the increased value of the repaired article above its value before the accident may be deducted from the cost of repairs.

In this case it was undisputed that the underground electric cable did not have a protective “conduit.” After the repair, the line was placed in a PVC “conduit” pursuant to the current building codes. That placed the homeowners in a better position than prior to the accident because now not only did they have electricity supply to their home, they had it supplied in a protective PVC “conduit.”

The Court found that that Poly’s actions were a substantial factor with respect to the damage—but was not willing to place the entire electrical upgrade on Poly’s shoulders because it would place the homeowners in a slightly better position than they were in before the breach. Unfortunately, the invoice from Engler Electric did not list the individual cost for each of the materials separately, nor did it detail the labor for each stage of the work separately. There was also no testimony with respect to the value of the home before and after the electrical upgrades excluding the value of the fence.

After reviewing all the evidence, assessing the credibility of witnesses, and applying the rules of substantive law, the Court found that substantial justice was best accomplished by awarding a judgment in favor of the homeowners while applying a $1,000 reduction in their damages. The direct damages were $3,440 for electrical repair and $712.08 in consequential damages for hotel accommodations during the four-day period the homeowners were without electricity. After applying a $1,000 reduction, judgment was entered against Poly and in favor of the homeowners in the amount of $3,152.08 without costs because Poly was successful in reducing the overall amount of the damages.

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