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Pacific Bell Telephone Company v. Southern California Edison Company

August 30, 2012

PACIFIC BELL TELEPHONE COMPANY, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON COMPANY, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Barbara M. Scheper, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. PC044372)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chaney, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Affirmed.

Defendant Southern California Edison ("Edison") appeals from the judgment entered against it following a bench trial in which the court ruled that Edison was liable to Pacific Bell Telephone Company ("Pacific Bell") for just compensation in Pacific Bell's cause of action for inverse condemnation. We affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL SUMMARY

The relevant facts of this appeal are not disputed. Edison has installed bird guards to prevent animal contact with energized components of its electrical facilities. Unfortunately, on January 11, 2006, near the intersection of Valley Street and Lyons Avenue in the city of Newhall, these guards did not prevent a large bird from coming into simultaneous contact with an energized power line and grounded equipment on a utility pole, causing the bird's death and a ground fault that sent electricity through Pacific Bell's underground telephone cables, burning several of them. Although aware of the risk to its equipment from ground faults, Pacific Bell's underground system was not designed to withstand such faults and was placed in the same trench as Edison's facilities to reduce overall costs. The parties stipulated that the damage to Pacific Bell's telephone cables was $74,767.39.

In December 2008, Pacific Bell filed suit against Edison asserting causes of action for negligence and inverse condemnation. Prior to the bench trial, Pacific Bell apparently dismissed its negligence claim so that only the inverse condemnation claim proceeded to trial.

In its statement of decision, the trial court rejected Edison's argument that it was a private entity and could not be held liable in inverse condemnation. Based on the Fourth District's opinion in Barham v. Southern Cal. Edison Co. (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 744 (Barham), the trial court concluded that Edison "may be liable as a public entity in inverse condemnation." Quoting Barham, the trial court stated: "We are not convinced that any significant differences exist regarding the operation of publicly versus privately owned electric utilities as applied to the facts in this case and find there is no rational basis upon which to found such a distinction." (Barham, supra, at pp. 753-754.)

The trial court also rejected Edison's argument that, if it was liable for inverse condemnation, a strict liability standard was inappropriate and a reasonableness standard should be applied. The trial court noted that Edison had not cited any cases applying the reasonableness standard outside the flood control context and declined to apply such a standard in this case.*fn1

The court awarded Pacific Bell the stipulated damages amount as well as prejudgment interest, attorney fees and costs for a total judgment of $123,841.95.

DISCUSSION

I. Edison's Liability for Inverse Condemnation

On appeal Edison contends that the central case relied upon by the trial court in finding Edison liable for inverse condemnation, Barham, supra, 74 Cal.App.4th 744, wrongly interpreted Supreme Court precedent to hold privately owned public utilities like Edison may be liable for inverse condemnation as a public entity. (Id. at p. 753.) Edison also argues that under California Supreme Court case law, a privately owned public utility like Edison can be held liable for inverse condemnation only in two limited situations: (1) where the private entity takes or damages private property directly through the exercise of eminent domain power delegated to it by the Legislature; and (2) where the conduct that causes the taking or damaging of property involves joint participation of a government entity.

We find Edison's reading of the Supreme Court cases to be overly limited and agree with the conclusion reached in Barham and by the trial court that Edison may be liable under inverse ...


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