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If a blackout spoils food, utility may eat the cost

Those who tossed more than salad in the recent outages can file a claim.

August 13, 2006|Gayle Pollard-Terry | Times Staff Writer

Desiree Causey says she had to pitch $400 worth of food that spoiled during the recent blackouts, and she expects to be reimbursed.

"I lost hummus, salmon steaks, milk, the baby back ribs that we were going to have Sunday night," said the Southern California Edison customer, who lives in Westminster. Even the top of her wedding cake -- stored for 18 years. "We were making a joke about defrosting it at 20 years."

Thousands of Southern Californians lost power during the late-July heat wave and many are asking the two major utilities, Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, to cover the costs of spoiled food and stays in hotel rooms. Although neither utility is guaranteeing that checks will be cut, customers are encouraged to file claims.

During the heat, 1.1 million of Southern California Edison's 4.7 million customers lost power, according to Lynda Ziegler, senior vice president for customer service. Some were momentary interruptions, and others lasted longer, she said.

Causey spent two days without power.

"If the outage is caused by an act of nature or something out of our control, like heat or lightning or animals getting into wires, we are not liable for those," Ziegler said. "If it was simply a heat-related issue, then those would not be paid."

However, an electrical subcontractor told Causey the outage that affected her area was caused by a transformer problem. If the interruption is caused by negligence, the loss is covered, according to representatives for the utilities.

Ziegler said it's hard to predict what will be paid and what will be denied. "We do investigate each claim that we get," she said. "It's worthwhile for a customer to turn it in, so we can take a look at it."

So far, since the heat wave, more than 300 Edison customers have filed outage complaints.

Regarding food loss, Edison evaluates claims based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guidelines. According to information on the company's website, a fully stocked freezer will usually keep food frozen for two days after losing power. A half-full freezer will usually keep food frozen for about one day. In the refrigerator, food will usually keep for up to six hours, depending on the temperature of the room.

Though the claim form recommends an itemized list of food with proof of purchase, Ziegler acknowledged that most customers don't keep receipts. In those cases, she said, customers may turn in the receipts for the costs of replacing the food.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has a similar claims policy. "People do not necessarily need receipts for groceries or other items, but they should provide a reasonable estimate of what the items were worth," said spokeswoman Carol Tucker.

About 80,000 of the DWP's 1.4 million customers lost power during the blackouts. Although the utility has received only a handful of claims, according to Tucker, it has received many calls to the customer service office.

Like Edison, the utility determines payments based on the cause of the interruption of service. Customers have six months to file a claim.

Causey, an Edison customer, is now working on filing her claim. During the power outage, she put a sign in her frontyard: "Day 2, No Power, Where Is Edison?" After the electricity was restored, she posted the phone number to call regarding claims for neighbors to see.

Another Edison customer, Josh Cunningham of La Verne, was without power for four days. Before the blackout, he said, the electricity in his home was shorting out five or six times a day, for about an hour each time.

When the power went completely off, Cunningham said the temperature inside his home rose to 97. "There was no way to stay here," he said. "It was just too hot." So he and his wife stayed with friends and spent one night in a hotel.

Again, Edison's Ziegler advises, "submit receipts with a claim."

Neither DWP nor Edison customers will be charged for power during the outages.

Department of Water and Power claim forms can be downloaded from its website at www.ladwp.com or requested by calling (800) DIAL-DWP ([800] 342-5397).

Southern California Edison customers can fill out a claim form on the utility's website at www.sce.com or call the claims department at (800) 251-3311.

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