Employees with American Electric Power Company testified in a jury trial Thursday regarding a wrongful death lawsuit filed against AEP by the estate of Elsa Thompson of Marietta who died in a house fire in May of 2019.
Plaintiff attorney Jordan Lebovitz played a recording of two of Elsa Thompson’s calls to AEP on May 25, 2019, the day her house caught fire.
“A big branch from my tree pulled down the wire. I still have power but two big branches from the tree have both wires down,” Elsa Thompson said in the call.
She asked for a timeline of when someone could come out to fix it and the customer service representative told her there were other outages on her circuit, affecting 11 customers, and she was told that restoration time was 6 p.m. The representative with AEP said dispatch was notified of the wires earlier that day and told her she could expect someone that evening.
“I’m very concerned about these big branches that would cause a power outage. I’m surprised that it didn’t happen,” Elsa Thompson said.
During her second call to AEP, she asked whether or not she needed to be awake when crews came to fix the power lines.
“I’m an 85-year-old woman and I live by myself so I’m concerned with what I need to do,” Elsa Thompson said.
During cross examination with defense attorney Jason Gherkin, the definition of a “hazard” was talked about which AEP Customer Service Supervisor Michael Ward said could be a broken pole or a low wire. Gherkin discussed the other calls made to AEP on May 25, 2019.
Ward said when Elsa Thompson made her second phone call, an additional ticket was not created but he said if it had been, it would not have changed the priority of the call for service.
“The agent was wrong for not creating another ticket. By not creating the ticket, it would not have changed the priority,” Ward said.
David Barth, dispatch supervisor with AEP, was next to the witness stand and prior to Thursday’s testimony, he was asked to investigate AEP’s response to Elsa Thompson’s calls.
Lebovitz showed an AEP log which outlined the response from dispatch and service technicians.
A few hours after Elsa Thompson’s first call, a new dispatcher was assigned and a minute later, an emergency alarm sounded.
“The purpose is to raise the bell again so (dispatch) folks can have another reminder that there’s a hazard in the field,” Lebovitz said and Barth confirmed. “If another four-hour alarm was set at 6:15, it would put another alarm off at 10:15. The document doesn’t list a secondary emergency alarm.”
Josh Vandergrift, the technician assigned to Elsa Thompson’s call for service, responded to a lower priority call before coming to her house, according to Lebovitz.
Ninety-five percent of priority 3 calls involve some type of hazard that had not yet been reported, Barth said. In later testimony Matthew Bissell, trial representative for AEP and distribution manager, said service workers do not see the priority level but that a red light indicates the presence of a hazard.
Barth believes AEP and all of its employees responded appropriately to the situation and said he would not change Vandergrift’s order of service knowing what he knows today.
“As a dispatcher, I would not have. I can’t really express how I feel about the loss of life, period. But I still feel confident that the servicer responded in a way that is (in accordance) with company policy,” Barth said.
During Barth’s testimony, attorneys from each side referenced an AEP guide for responding to hazardous calls. In that policy, a change was made in the early 2000s due to a report of a hazard that had not been served in 12 hours.
When questioned, Barth said he believes 12 hours is too long to respond to a priority 2, a hazard. Lebovitz showed documentation from AEP showing the issue had been resolved 12 hours after the initial report of the downed power line. It was first reported at 1:53 p.m. by Elsa Thompson’s neighbor and was restored at 1:57 a.m. the following day.
Bissell works with service workers and schedules them accordingly. He said one service worker is adequate for after hours and during weekends.
Vandergrift was on duty the night of the fire and Bissell was supervising. Bissell said with Vandergrift’s workload, he tried to get him some help.
Questioned by the plaintiff’s attorney John Power, Bissell said he did not have adequate coverage for that night because nobody answered the call to help Vandergrift.
“He was one of the best guys we have. I did not give up on getting him help. If I would have asked for help, it would have taken a long time for anybody to get there. In my experience, it would have been a struggle,” Bissell said.
Power asked about the other calls Vandergrift responded to that evening and whether or not the call was considered a hazard.
Bissell confirmed Vandergrift responded to New Matamoras calls before going to the Marietta area to see about Elsa Thompson’s call for service.
After he traveled to Marietta following New Matamoras, Bissell confirmed Vandergrift went to County House Road and responded to a non-hazard situation, which was a blown fuse.
“(Vandergrift) went to something that wasn’t a prioritized hazard a half hour before the fire started,” Power said.
After fixing the issue on County House Road, Power said Vandergrift went on a 45-minute lunch break and had dinner with a couple of co-workers.
“He ultimately gets to the Thompson house almost 12 hours (after the initial call),” Power said.
Bissell will continue his testimony today at 9 a.m.
Candice Black can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.