Contractors burned in electric explosion get new crack at suit

By John O'Brien | Mar 14, 2007

Seated is Chief Justice William Barker. Standing, from left, are justices Janice Holder, Gary Wade and Cornelia Clark.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The case of two contractors who were involved in an explosion on Trevecca Nazarene University's campus will be remanded and reopened after the Tennessee Supreme Court recently decided the summary judgment for the school was inappropriate.

Gary Bennett and Thomas Cantley, electricians for Stones River Electric Co., claim they weren't warned of the high-voltage situation when they were sent to TNU in the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 2001.

In the deposition of Michael Yonnotti, one of the maintenance men who called Stones River, he testified, "They didn't ask."

Davidson Circuit Court Judge Walter Kurtz granted the summary judgment for the defendant, which was overturned in the Court of Appeals.

"Although the Court of Appeals fashioned a new 'voluntary speech rule' to cover the facts of this case, we rely on two well-established principles of Tennessee tort law, the voluntary assumption of a duty and negligent misrepresentation, to impose a duty of reasonable care on a premises owner to provide accurate information to an independent contractor if the owner provides specific information germane to the repair after engaging the contractor," Justice Cornelia Clark wrote Wednesday in the unanimous opinion.

The incident started when some campus buildings lost their power, and Yonnotti and Bill Adams, the maintenance technician, determined professional help was needed when their voltage meter blew. That meant at least 600 volts of electricity were present.

In Cantley's deposition, he claims he was told that only 480 volts were present.

When Cantley and Bennett tested the fuses on the switchgear, the first had an expected reading of zero volts.

The second, though, carried 4,160 volts and created an explosion that burned Bennett much worse because he was closer.

The two, in addition to receiving Workers' Compensation benefits, filed the suit against TNU in 2002, alleging that the school breached the duty of care it owed them.

Kurtz declared that Blair and Shell Oil Co. v. Blanks, in which it was determined that premises owners owned no such duty when the risks for a contractor arise from the defects of the machinery or appliance the contractor has undertaken to repair, should be the basis for judging the case.

The Appeals and Supreme courts decided that Blair was not the proper standard.

"In this case, TNU allegedly did more than contract with Stones River to repair the malfunctioning switchgear," Clark wrote. "Bennett and Cantley assert that TNU agents affirmatively told them after they had arrived on campus to begin the repair that 480 volts ran through the switchgear. It is clear to us, then, that this case presents a different issue."

That's why the Court used basic tort issues like assumption of a duty and negligent misrepresentation. The case is remanded to Davidson Circuit Court.

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