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Who’s to blame when someone dies because of a power outage?

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Although Eskom is not imposing load-shedding on us anymore (as far as we know), interruptions in the supply of electricity are still fairly common in many, if not all, areas of South Africa. But what if someone were to die because of the interruption? Who would be to blame if someone’s life-support system were to fail because of the power outage?

Roger Lilley

Sometimes the electrical supply is interrupted as a result of a technical fault or cable theft; and at other times, the supply is deliberately interrupted by the municipal utility to facilitate maintenance, repairs or the replacement of electrical distribution equipment. It’s not uncommon to receive a text message from the municipality’s electricity department apologising for “the inconvenience” when the supply is deliberately disconnected.

While one can understand the necessity of switching off and isolating an area so that maintenance technicians can work in safety, the problem is that one rarely receives adequate warning of a planned outage from the municipality. Unlike Eskom, which publishes schedules when interrupting power for planned maintenance, municipalities don’t. Or, if they do, they don’t do it well.

This makes it difficult for users, small and large alike, to make necessary arrangements prior to the outage. Furthermore, the way some people connect a generator to their home’s electrical system during an outage is criminal, or should be.

Another reason municipalities interrupt power is for non-payment. It is remarkable how quickly power is disconnected from residents in middle-class suburbs, even after being faithful in their payments for years, while at the same time, residents in lower-income areas seem to get away without paying for years without being disconnected.

A customer may have paid on time every month for 20 years or more, but let them miss, or be late for, a payment, and the team in the “cherry picker” truck will arrive and turn off the power at the pole in front of the house. And then charge a “reconnection fee” when they pay up.

Usually, when this happens, a note is left in the letterbox warning the user that the power will be interrupted, if they don’t make payment by the due date, but in my experience, the due date is either on or before the date the notification is delivered.

In a society in which the culture of non-payment for services is entrenched and broadly spread, disconnecting the electrical supply to a non-paying customer is seen as the logical way of forcing people to pay for what they consume. But sometimes there are dire consequences and one wonders whether disconnecting supply is really the best solution. I recently read of a situation which made me realise just how serious the consequences of arbitrary disconnection can be.

In July 2018, Linda Daniels, who lived in Newark, New Jersey in the US, died when power to her home was disconnected for non, or late payment. The 68 year-old woman depended on an electrically operated oxygen machine. When the power was interrupted, she struggled for breath for seven hours in the heat of a summer day and finally succumbed.

Who is to blame for her death? Some may say that had her bill been paid on time and in full, the power would not have been turned off. The view that Senator Teresa Ruiz has taken, however, is that the inability to pay an electric bill should not have deadly consequences. To that end, this year, the governor of the state of New Jersey signed a bill into law which requires electric utilities to verify with all residential customers whether anyone at the residence uses life-sustaining equipment powered by electricity.

That law, which is dubbed “Linda’s Law”, after the name of the woman who died, prohibits electric power utilities from disconnecting supply for 90 days due to non-payment for medical patients who rely on electrically-powered medical equipment to survive.

Furthermore, US lawmakers say that more has to be done to ensure that electric utilities have comprehensive systems which enable them to track and meet the needs of those customers who rely on electricity for life-preserving medical equipment. One of the senators is quoted as saying that such individuals need to be protected from potential power outages, while another said that missed utility payments should never have led to a decision which resulted in someone’s death.

So I got to thinking: What is the situation in South Africa? Who would be to blame if someone died as a result of the municipality disconnecting power to their life-sustaining equipment? Further, what if the outage was caused by someone stealing the cable? Could that person be charged with manslaughter, or worse, resulting from their wrong-doing resulting in someone’s death? Or is the onus on the person using the equipment to ensure that their utility bills are paid on time and that they have some form of emergency back-up power supply for their equipment?

Send your comments to energize@ee.co.za


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