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Beck v. Carolina Power & Light Co.

Filed: June 1, 1982.


Appeal by defendant from Godwin, Judge. Judgment entered 17 February 1981 in Superior Court, Wake County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 1 April 1982.

Martin (Robert M.), Judge. Judge Whichard concurs. Judge Martin (Harry C.) dissents.


The Jury Charge on the Issue of Negligence

Defendant's first argument on appeal is that the trial court failed to properly instruct the jury on the issue of negligence. The trial court instructed:

What is negligence? It's a lack of ordinary care. It's a failure to do what a reasonably careful and prudent person would have done, or the doing of something which a reasonably careful and prudent person would not have done; considering all of the circumstances existing at the time in question and on the occasion in question.

The court continued with another rule of negligence for electric utility companies:

There is another rule with respect to negligence that applies to electric utility companies. The rule of negligence that I have just read to you applies to individuals. It is a proper definition of negligence. An electric utility company owes to the public the highest degree of care, not ordinary care, but the highest degree of care for the safe installation, safe maintenance and safe inspection of the electrical lines and apparatus as is commensurate with the practical operation of the business of the electric utility company.

We agree with defendant that there is no separate rule of negligence for an electric utility company. The standard is always the rule of the prudent man or the care which a prudent man ought to use under like circumstances. "What reasonable care is, of course, varies in different cases and in the presence of different conditions. [Citation omitted.] The standard is due care, and due care means commensurate care under the circumstances." Jenkins v. Electric Co., 254 N.C. 553, 560, 119 S.E.2d 767, 772 (1961).

As a general rule, power companies are held to the "utmost diligence" in striving to prevent injury to others from electricity. Keith v. Gas Co., 266 N.C. 119, 130, 146 S.E.2d 7, 15 (1966). The courts view electricity as inherently dangerous and apply a correspondingly "higher standard of care." Wake Forest University, North Carolina Tort Practice Handbook 142 (1981).

In Ellis v. Power Co., 193 N.C. 357, 137 S.E. 163 (1927), the decedent had been found dead near a path with an electrical wire in his hand. As in this case, the wire was uninsulated and the pole was found to be in an unsafe condition. No one had been seen inspecting or repairing the line. In discussing the duty of this defendant, the Supreme Court stated:

It [the wire] lay there, perhaps several days, like a serpent. The rattle-snake warns its victim, but not so with this subtle, invisible and death-producing power. It is a matter of common knowledge that this wonderful force is of untold benefit to our industrial life. . . . Every legitimate encouragement should be given to its manufacture and distribution for use by public utility corporations, manufacturing plants, homes and elsewhere. On the other hand, the highest degree of care should be required in the manufacture and distribution of this deadly energy and in the maintenance and inspection of the instrumentalities and appliances use in transmitting this invisible and subtle power.

Id. at 362, 137 S.E. 166.

In Jenkins v. Electric Co., supra at 560, 119 S.E.2d 772, the court reasoned:

One who installs an instrumentality for a known use, which involves a great danger to life and limb, must exercise a degree of care commensurate with the danger for the protection of those who rightfully may be subject to the peril. The duty rests upon those who make and distribute the dangerous current . . . Electricity is not only dangerous, even deadly, but it is invisible, noiseless, and odorless, rendering it impossible to detect the presence of the peril until the fatal work is finished. It is for this reason that the high duty is imposed, a breach of it fixes liability for the resulting injury to those to whom the duty is owed. [Citation omitted.]

In Lynn v. Silk Mills, 208 N.C. 7, 11, 179 S.E. 11, 13 (1935), the Supreme Court acknowledged the "'highest degree of care'" owed by the power company and refused to hold improper a judge's charge which stated that: "it was its [the defendant's] duty to keep a constant lookout, a constant vigilance, and to observe a high degree of care in keeping its equipment outside of the house in good condition." Id. at 12-13, 179 S.E. 14. Likewise, in Letchworth v. Town of Ayden, 44 N.C. App. 1, 4, 260 S.E.2d 143, 145 (1979), disc. rev. denied, 299 N.C. 331, 265 S.E.2d 396 (1980), this Court noted: "'The danger is great, and care and watchfulness must be commensurate to it.'" (Citation omitted.) See also Rice v. Lumberton, 235 N.C. 227, 69 S.E.2d 543 (1952); Willis v. Page 379} Power Co., 42 N.C. App. 582, 257 S.E.2d 471 (1979); and Hale v. Power Co., 40 N.C. App. 202, 252 S.E.2d 265, disc. rev. denied, 297 N.C. 452, 256 S.E.2d 805 (1979), all stating that a supplier of electricity owes the "highest degree of care" in providing for the safety of the public.

Thus the courts agree that in order for a power company to be reasonably prudent in the exercise of its business, a high degree of care must be implemented because the hazards inherent in the business are great. This understanding of the duty of power companies does not differ in any significant or prejudicial fashion from that set out by Judge Godwin. Judge Godwin's instruction merely informed the jury that the degree of care owed by a power company in maintaining and inspecting its lines is a high degree of care, which degree of care is different from ordinary care required under ordinary circumstances. Although the judge may have been slightly incorrect in stating that "another rule" applies to power companies, the defendant has made no showing that this charge, when viewed as a whole, had any prejudicial effect on the defendant's opportunity to prevail on this issue.

The defendant also protests that the court failed to couple the term "highest degree of care" with "consistent with the practical operation of its business" on every occasion on which the judge used the phrase "highest degree of care." When Judge Godwin first set forth the duty of the power company, he clearly stated that the company had ". . . the highest degree of care for the safe installation, safe maintenance and safe inspection of the electrical lines and apparatus as is commensurate with the practical operation of the business of an electric utility company." (Emphasis added.) Later in discussing the degree of care the judge stated, "[t]his high degree of care . . ." The defendant has made no showing that within the context of the charge as a whole, this omission constituted prejudicial error. In fact, the charge as given could not be deemed prejudicial because the negligence which plaintiff alleged was the failure of the defendant to abide by its own rules and regulations and the rules and regulations promulgated by the National Electrical Safety Code and given the force of law by the Utilities Commission. See Rule R8-26, Rules and Regulations of the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Thus any failure of the judge to repeat the phrase "consistent

with the practical operation of its business" could have had no material impact on the outcome of this action.

The defendant's final argument concerning the jury charge is that the trial court did not give equal stress to the contentions of the defendant. This claim is without merit. Where one party presents substantially more evidence than the other, it is not error for the court's recapitulation of that party's evidence to be longer than the recapitulation of the evidence of the other party. Love v. Pressley, 34 N.C. App. 503, 239 S.E.2d 574 (1977), disc. rev. denied, 294 N.C. 441, 241 S.E.2d 843 (1978). Plaintiff presented the testimony of 19 witnesses who gave the jury information relating to the physical facts surrounding the decedent's death, medical findings, the scientific explanation for the decedent's death, the applicable standards of the industry, the worth of Daryl Beck to his family, friends and as a worker and the economic loss suffered by his family as a result of his death. Defendant's evidence consisted of three witnesses, none of whom gave testimony relevant to the plaintiff's decedent and none of whom could provide anything other than speculation as to the cause of Beck's death. By reviewing the evidence which the defendant presented and by stating that the defendant contended that plaintiff's allegations were untrue, the court adequately fulfilled its obligation to instruct the jury as to defendant's contentions.

The assignments of error based on the judge's charge are without merit and overruled. When an error in the judge's charge is asserted by the appellant as a basis for reversal of the verdict below, the burden is on that party not merely to demonstrate that the court's instructions were in error, but also to demonstrate that when the judge's instructions are considered in their entirety, as opposed to in fragments, the error was prejudicial to the appealing party's chance of success and amounted to the denial of a substantial right. Otherwise, reversal or a new trial is unwarranted. Gregory v. Lynch, 271 N.C. 198, 155 S.E.2d 488 (1967); Burgess v. Construction Co., 264 N.C. 82, 140 S.E.2d 766 (1965). The defendant has failed to meet this burden.

Compensatory Damages

The defendant next argues that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence the testimony of Dr. J. C. Poindexter, on

the prospective economic losses of the plaintiff. Dr. Poindexter, qualified as an economics expert, testified that based on the decedent's life expectancy, education, race, geographic location and sex he could project the loss of income support, reduced to present monetary value, incurred by Beck's wife Sheila and daughter Rekelle as a result of Daryl Beck's death. Dr. Poindexter testified that the figures produced through his calculations were consistent with the actual earnings received by Daryl Beck during his short work history. Dr. Poindexter pointed out that earnings of people within the statistical group which Dr. Poindexter utilized as representative of this decedent were low. In fact, in arriving at his opinion, Dr. Poindexter used computations which presumed an initial earnings figure less than that amount which Daryl Beck earned during 1978, the last year of his life. The economist testified that a loss figure of $186,245 was appropriate if Daryl Beck had worked until age 60, and that a figure of $204,037 was appropriate presuming a work life to 65. In addition, Dr. Poindexter valued the present value of Daryl Beck's projected in-home services for 10 hours per week at minimum wage, at $47,653.

The testimony of Dr. Poindexter was not improper speculation as defendant contends. The General Assembly intended the wrongful death statute to as fully as possible compensate persons for the loss of their decedent. Bowen v. Rental Co., 283 N.C. 395, 196 S.E.2d 789 (1973). In allowing recovery under this statute, the North Carolina courts have recognized that, by necessity, some speculation is necessary in determining damages. In Bowen at 419, 196 S.E.2d 805-06, the court noted that monetary recovery cannot be denied simply "because no yardstick for ascertaining the amount thereof has been provided."

In Brown v. Moore, 286 N.C. 664, 673, 213 S.E.2d 342, 348-49 (1975), in discussing the monetary value of a 17 year old, the court noted that although an award of damages must not be based on sheer speculation that:

The present monetary value of the decedent to the persons entitled to receive the damages recovered will usually defy any precise mathematical computation. [Citation omitted.] Therefore, the assessment of damages must, to a large extent, be left to the good sense and fair judgment of the jury . . . The fact that the full extent of the damages must be a

matter of some speculation is no ground for refusing all damages. [Citations omitted.] . . ." The damages in any wrongful death action are to some extent uncertain and speculative. A jury may indulge in such speculation where it is necessary and there ...

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