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DAVID LAZARUS / CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Blackout losses no sweat for utilities

September 05, 2007|David Lazarus

Let's say you're one of the more than 600,000 Southern Californians hit with power outages amid the heat wave that's turned this region into a little slice of Hades. What can you do if all the food in your fridge has gone bad or some crucial bit of data has vanished from your computer?

Turns out that power companies statewide have programs for compensating customers for losses. But don't think that it'll be easy filing a claim, or that a refund will come your way any time soon, if at all.

"I know we have a claim form," a flustered San Diego Gas & Electric spokeswoman, Rachel Laing, said as she fruitlessly scoured her company's website for the relevant document. "I just don't know where it is."

Not that SDG&E or Southern California Edison, which together account for about 6.2 million electricity users, has much to worry about. State regulations excuse them, along with Pacific Gas & Electric in Northern California, from having to cover any damages resulting from circumstances deemed beyond each company's control.

Such as a heat wave.

"The catch is that you have to prove whether the problem is an act of God or the result of a utility's deferred maintenance, which may have exacerbated the problem," said Bob Finkelstein, executive director of the Utility Reform Network in San Francisco. "That's virtually impossible for the typical consumer."

Unlike SDG&E, Edison's website explicitly states that the company doesn't guarantee "a continuous or sufficient supply or freedom from interruption."

"We will not be liable for interruption or shortage of supply, nor for any resulting loss or damage, if such interruption or shortage results from any cause not within our control," it says.

However, if you still want some compensation for that spoiled gallon of milk or that tub of rocky road ice cream that now resembles industrial sludge, the site says Edison will consider all claims (which must include supporting documents, such as supermarket receipts) and will respond within 45 days.

"Believe me, I have the greatest sympathy for customers when the power goes out," said Lynda Ziegler, Edison's senior vice president of customer service. "But the heat wave is clearly beyond our control."

As air conditioners kicked into high gear over the holiday weekend, outages were reported from downtown Los Angeles to some of the more suffocating sections of the San Fernando Valley. MacArthur Park resident Paz Tejada told The Times that her family lost about $240 in groceries when their refrigerator stopped working.

The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, with 1.4 million electricity customers, is in a somewhat different position from other power providers. It isn't regulated by state authorities and is instead beholden to City Hall.

You can readily find lots of information at the department's website (ladwp.com). What you won't readily find is any info about how customers can file a claim for damages.

Walter Zeisl, a DWP spokesman, said the best he could suggest was to type "claim form" into the site's search box and then click on the third listing that comes up -- not the most intuitive approach.

The "claims information" page instructs customers to first consider contacting their insurance company. If, however, you persist in wanting to file a claim with the DWP, the site says, you need to be precise about the time, date and location of the incident, and you must be able to prove the extent of your loss.

"Be practical and reasonable," it advises.

Clicking the link for the actual claim form produces a document that declares at the outset that it's "not an admission of liability or a guarantee of payment by LADWP."

Claimants must fill in their name and address, along with details of the incident and the amount of the refund being sought. The form makes clear that supporting documents -- bills, estimates, invoices, photos -- will be required and that a police report possibly may be involved.

But is this really a hoop most consumers would want to jump through for a refund that probably runs no more than a few hundred bucks?

Zeisl was unable to provide more specifics about the DWP's claims policy or address whether the department's claim form was sufficiently easy to find by the average customer.

"I'm not authorized to respond to your questions," he said, referring me instead to the city attorney's office, which handles claims on behalf of the DWP.

A spokesman for the city attorney's office said the DWP, like state-regulated utilities, can't be held liable for circumstances beyond its control. All other claims, he said, were dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, SDG&E's Laing called back to say that the utility's claim form wasn't anywhere online, which explained why she had so much trouble finding it. She said SDG&E preferred its customers complain by calling (800) 411-SDGE.

But the website says that is the general number for customer service. There's nothing that specifically says you should call it if you want to file a claim.

"People figure it out pretty quickly," Laing replied, adding that about 100 people had called with outage-related claims just Tuesday morning.

They shouldn't hold their breath.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays and occasionally in between. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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