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State ex rel. Ohio Edison Co. v. Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eleventh District, Trumbull

December 23, 2019


          Original Action for Writ of Prohibition.

          John T. Dellick, Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell, Ltd., (For Relator).

          Dennis Watkins, Trumbull County Prosecutor, and William J. Danso and Michael J. Fredericka, Assistant Prosecutors, Administration Building, Fourth Floor, (For Respondent).


          PER CURIAM.

         {¶1} Relator, Ohio Edison Company ("Ohio Edison"), has filed an original action seeking a writ of prohibition to prevent respondent, Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas, from proceeding on a complaint, filed against it by a third party, Double K Kirby Farms ("Double K") in Case No. 2019 CV 416. In its petition, Ohio Edison argues the court of common pleas lacks jurisdiction over a complaint filed against it because it claims the Public Utility Commission of Ohio ("PUCO") possesses exclusive jurisdiction over the allegations, pursuant to R.C. 4905.26. Relator filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, asserting its jurisdictional argument. Respondent, Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas, however, after considering the motion and the plaintiffs memorandum in opposition, denied the motion. For the reasons that follow, we conclude the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas lacks jurisdiction to proceed and accordingly grant Ohio Edison's petition.

         {¶2} Factual and Procedural Background

         {¶3} In March 2019, Double K filed its complaint in the court of common pleas. The following allegations were set forth in the complaint: In April 2017, Double K observed abnormal behavior in its dairy cows. In October 2017, Double K believed stray electrical voltage existed on its farm in the form of neutral-to-earth voltages. Double K contacted Precision Ag Automation, an apparent agricultural engineering company, to test for stray voltage (the complaint and the parties appear to agree that "neutral-to-earth voltage" and "stray voltage" identify the same electrical phenomenon). Pursuant to the test, Precision Ag found excessive voltage on the farm and equipment damage from low voltage during a "brownout." Double K subsequently contacted New Pittsburg Large Animal Clinic to evaluate its cows. The clinic opined the stray electrical voltage caused substantial damage to its cows. Over 25 cows died from the stray electrical voltage and another 32 had to be sold for slaughter due to complications from the voltage. In light of the foregoing, Double K asserted Ohio Edison breached its duty by failing to provide proper and appropriate electrical voltage and failing to install an appropriate device to reduce the neutral-to-earth voltages which caused it damages in excess of $25, 000.

         {¶4} Ohio Edison moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing Double K's claim was actually a service complaint subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of PUCO. Double K opposed the motion. In its memorandum, Double K noted it had previously filed a claim with PUCO, but, in that matter, Ohio Edison moved to dismiss its prayer for monetary damages. PUCO granted the motion. Double K asserted that, because the prayer for damages was dismissed, the action in tort was properly before the court of common pleas. Ohio Edison filed a reply brief, asserting Ohio's public-utility statutes provide a customer with the ability to have its service claim assessed for a violation, but the process is two-fold. If the service complaint before PUCO is successful and not reversed by the Ohio Supreme Court, a claimant may then bring the matter before the courts to determine whether damages are appropriate. See R.C. 4905.61. The trial court denied Ohio Edison's motion, concluding the claim for damages was properly before it.

         {¶5} Ohio Edison subsequently filed the instant petition for writ of prohibition. The matter is before the court on the petition, Ohio Edison's motion for summary judgment, as well as respondent's memorandum in opposition to Ohio Edison's motion.

         {¶6} General Governing Law

         {¶7} Three elements are generally required for a writ of prohibition to issue: the exercise of judicial power, the lack of authority for the exercise of that power, and the lack of an adequate remedy in the ordinary course of the law. State ex rel. Elder v. Camplese, 144 Ohio St.3d 89, 2015-Ohio-3628, ¶13. If, however, the absence of jurisdiction is patent and unambiguous, a petitioner need not establish the third prong, the lack of an adequate remedy at law. State ex rel. Sapp v. Franklin Cty. Court of Appeals, 118 Ohio St.3d 368, 2008-Ohio-2637, ¶15.

         {¶8} Ohio Edison has established the first prerequisite for the issuance of the writ. Respondent, the court of common pleas, has exercised judicial power in the underlying case by denying Ohio Edison's motion to dismiss Double K's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and will continue to exercise judicial power as the case proceeds. We shall therefore proceed to analyze whether, as Ohio Edison asserts in its motion for summary judgment, the trial court patently and unambiguously lacks subject-matter jurisdiction.

         {¶9} Subject-matter jurisdiction is the power conferred upon a court to hear and decide a case on the merits. Morrison v. Steiner, 32 Ohio St.2d 86 (1972), paragraph one of the syllabus. "'Jurisdiction does not relate to the rights of the parties, but to the power of the court.'" (Emphasis sic.) State ex rel. Jones v. Suster, 84 Ohio St.3d 70, 75 (1998), quoting Executors of Long's Estate v. State, 21 Ohio App. 412, 415 (1st Dist.1926).

         {¶10} "The General Assembly has created a broad and comprehensive statutory scheme for regulating the business activities of public utilities." Kazmaier Supermarket, Inc. v. Toledo Edison Co., 61 Ohio St.3d 147, 150 (1991). "R.C. Title 49 sets forth a detailed statutory framework for the regulation of utility service and the fixation of rates charged by public utilities to their customers." Id. As part of that framework, the General Assembly created PUCO, ...

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