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In re Complaint of Harris Design Services

Supreme Court of Ohio

June 28, 2018

In re Complaint of Harris Design Services, Appellant,
v.
Columbia Gas of Ohio, Inc., Intervening Appellee; Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, Appellee.

          Submitted April 10, 2018

          Appeal from the Public Utilities Commission, No. 15-405-GA-CSS.

          Rinehart, Rishel & Cuckler, Ltd., and Grant A. Wolfe, for appellant.

          Michael DeWine, Attorney General, and William L. Wright, Robert A. Eubanks, and Thomas G. Lindgren, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

          Brooke E. Wanchek, Stephen B. Seiple, and Joseph M. Clark, for intervening appellee.

          DEWINE, J.

         {¶ 1} A public-utility company claims that it gave its customer adequate notice that natural-gas service to the customer's property had been disconnected by hanging two notices on the front door of the property. The customer, who was not occupying the property, did not discover the notices and thus did not realize that the gas had been disconnected until the pipes froze and burst, causing damage. Whether the utility company furnished adequate notice of the service disconnection is the main question in this appeal from orders of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio ("PUCO"). We conclude that the utility did provide adequate notice through the door tags, and we affirm the orders.

         BACKGROUND

         {¶ 2} Columbia Gas of Ohio, Inc. ("Columbia") supplied natural-gas service to a property in Columbus ("the property") that was leased to Harris Design Services ("HDS"), an architectural-design firm. In November 2007, the firm physically vacated the property but continued to lease and maintain it.

         {¶ 3} In February 2014, Bruce Harris, the owner and president of HDS, discovered that the building had sustained damage as a result of water pipes that had burst due to freezing temperatures. The pipes had frozen because, unbeknownst to HDS, Columbia had disconnected gas service to the property. HDS eventually filed a complaint, alleging that Columbia had failed to give proper notice of the disconnection, in violation of R.C. 4905.22, which requires utilities to provide "necessary and adequate service."

         {¶ 4} The PUCO held a hearing on the complaint. The evidence established that service to HDS's building had been disconnected in September 2013 after a cable company hit a gas line near the property. Ryder Long, a Columbia service technician, was sent to repair the line. After making the repairs, Long reestablished service to the meter, but he left the meter valve off and locked it so that no gas would go into the structure until service was reestablished. He knocked on the front door to speak with someone about restoring service to the building, but no one answered. Long testified that he had prepared a tag to hang on the door to notify the customer to call Columbia to reestablish service but saw that he did not need to leave the tag, because there was already a yellow Columbia tag on the door. He believed that the yellow tag had been placed on the door by a different technician who had been there earlier in the day.

         {¶ 5} In November 2013, Long was called back to the property because the gas line had been hit a second time. After making repairs, Long checked the meter valve and saw that it was still off and locked. Once again, he knocked on the door and no one answered. Long testified that he saw the yellow door tag still hanging on the door from the September incident and that this time, he placed an orange tag on top of the yellow tag.

         {¶ 6} In its posthearing brief, HDS challenged the credibility of Long's testimony about the door tags. It noted that three individuals had testified that they had visited the property on behalf of HDS during the relevant time period and none of them had stated that he or she had seen a tag on the door. Janet Harris, Bruce's wife and the office manager for HDS, said that she had driven by the property on a monthly basis. Bruce Harris testified that he had been in the building in December 2013 (when everything was fine) and again in February 2014 (when he discovered the damage). And a landscaper who mowed the lawn through November 2013 testified that he did not remember seeing anything on the door.

         {¶ 7} HDS further argued that even if door tags had been hung on the door, they would not constitute sufficient notice. In addition to door tags, HDS maintained, Columbia ...


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