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Nat'l Food Stores, Inc. v. Union Elec. Co. - 494 S.W.2d 379 (Mo. Ct. App. 1973)

Rule:

Generally speaking, an electric power company which undertakes to supply current, although not an insurer of service, has an obligation to provide a patron with adequate and continuous service, arising either from express contract, a regulatory enactment, or implied contract and the supplier is, ordinarily at least, subject to a duty to exercise reasonable care to fulfill such obligation.

Facts:

Plaintiff appellant grocery store chain sought damages for the spoilage of certain perishable food items when electrical services were interrupted in the stores. The circuit court held that the defendant appellee electric company had a duty to the store chain to provide notice of its intention to interrupt service because it could have reasonably anticipated that a steadily deteriorating environmental situation was going to necessitate the interruption of service to its customers. A jury awarded damages to the grocery store chain, finding no basis for legal liability. However, the circuit court granted defendant electric company's motion to set aside the verdict. The grocery store chain sought review.

Issue:

In an action by plaintiff grocery store chain for the spoilage of perishable food when electrical services were interrupted, was it a question for the jury as to whether defendant electric company's failure to give notice of the outage was a breach of the duty owed by a public utility?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed the circuit court's decision to set aside the jury's verdict for plaintiff grocery store chain. The court held that damages in excess of defendant electric company's tariff on file with the state public service commission were awardable because the electric company could not divorce itself from the consequences of its own failure to use ordinary care to avoid harm to its consumers. The Court explained that public utilities occupy a unique position in society because consumers' dependency on their services is almost total. Accordingly, the Court found that the electric company knew of the gravity of the situation that day and that it was well aware that it might have to have an area-wide cessation of power; therefore, it became a jury question as to whether the failure to give a reasonable notice or warning of outages and interruptions of service was reasonably likely to cause harm or property loss to its consumers. The Court concluded that it was a jury question as to whether or not the failure to give notice was a breach of that duty. The Court directed that on retrial, the jury must determine whether defendant electric company was negligent in not giving a general notice and, if so, the damages sustained by plaintiff grocery store chain as a proximate cause of that failure. It must also determine whether the electric company was negligent in not giving specific notice to the grocery store chain after having assured that it would, and, if so, what damages were sustained from that breach.

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