Canadian Underwriter

Why this town is not liable for electric shock hazard at sports field

January 8, 2020   by Greg Meckbach

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An Ontario municipality was recently found not liable for an electrical hazard created when a light pole at a sports field was struck by lightning, allowing the light to continue functioning while letting current leak into the ground near the pole.

On Aug. 15, 2012, Zoe Onley, then 18, was placing soccer at the Iroquois Park Sports Centre, which is owned by the Town of Whitby east of Toronto. The grass was wet. After the first half of the game, she left the field and sat down on the grass near a light pole. When she got up to resume playing, she felt an electric shock. She later collapsed and was taken to hospital by ambulance.

Other people on the scene reported feeling a shock when touching the ground in the same area.

Onley later sued the town for injuries she said she sustained as a result of the shock.

In Onley v. Town of Whitby, released Jan. 2, Justice Edward Koke ruled the town was not liable. The wiring in the light was damaged but Justice Koke ruled it was not reasonably foreseeable by the town that a shock hazard was present.

Much of his ruling – the result of a four day trial held during the summer of 2019 – was on the origin and cause of the damage to the electrical components as well as on medical evidence submitted by the plaintiff.

After the incident that injured Onley, investigators removed an access metal plate near the base of the light pole. They discovered damaged wiring. An expert for the town offered the opinion that a bonding wire melted and separated, disconnecting it from the pole. As a result, electrical current leaked from a damaged, uninsulated wire on to the surface of the pole, then down the pole into the ground.

So the theory is that Onley could have provided a current – between the lighting pole and the surrounding ground – as she was getting back to her feet after sitting down.

An electrical engineering expert retained by the plaintiffs suggested that the wires and the connectors in the electrical system powering the lights could have deteriorated through degradation. This, the expert suggested, could have occurred due to a lack of an effective maintenance and inspection program.

But an electrician for the town had found that conductors and connectors at a handhole on the pole had been damaged. Photographs revealed that bonding wire had melted and burned in the area of the handhole.  An expert concluded that a wire and split-bolt connector had reached a temperature of at least 1,984 degrees Fahrenheit or more – the temperature required to melt copper.

Ultimately, Justice Koke concluded the components had been damaged by an earlier lightning strike and that damage was not immediately apparent.

“The damage was such that no short-circuit path had been created in the electronics of the luminaires,” he wrote. “The current-carrying wires and fuses remained intact, allowing the luminaires to continue functioning normally when energized after the incident.  Leakage current escaped from the damaged phase conductor, but the nature of the damage was such that it prevented the leakage current from being safely drained away by an intact bonding wire.  Instead, the leakage current migrated down the pole and onto the ground.”

Justice Koke ruled it was not reasonably foreseeable that a lightning strike would damage wiring in the light pole without also affecting the normal functioning of the lights or causing circuit breakers to trip.

In ruling the town was not liable, Justice Koke cited Rankin (Rankin’s Garage & Sales) v. J.J., released in 2018 by the Supreme Court of Canada. That arose when two teenagers – identified as J.J. and C.C. – stole a car from the lot of Rankin’s Garage in Paisley, Ont, in 2006. C.C. drove the car with J.J. as a passenger. They got into a collision. C.C. was drunk. J.J. suffered catastrophic brain injury and sued sued C.C., as well as C.C.’s mother (for supplying the teens with alcohol) and Rankin’s Garage. Initially, a jury found Rankin’s Garage 37% liable. But the Supreme Court of Canada allowed an appeal, ruling it was unreasonable to find that Rankin’s Garage should have foreseen that a customer’s car would be stolen from its lot by a drunk teenager who then gets in an accident and injures his passenger.

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