The two year anniversary of the big freeze of 2021 is upon us, and the statute of limitations for civil actions in this sort of thing is two years, so you know what that means.
When Cherrilyn Nedd left her uncomfortably cold Summerwood home during the February 2021 winter storm to stay with her in-laws — who had a generator — she never expected that she would return to find the house ruined. She left the faucets dripping and her cabinets open. Hurricanes worried her, not freezes.
But a hissing noise greeted Nedd, 53, when she and her husband came back the next day to check on their house. Water spewed from a broken pipe in the collapsed ceiling, flooding every room on the first floor — their bedroom, the kitchen, the dining room and the living room.
“What is going on?” Nedd asked herself, in shock, stepping through the water.
The couple shut off the water to the house and swept out as much as they could. They would spend nearly a year and some $90,000 fixing the home, but they would never get back the ruined photos of a family cruise and their nephew as a baby; the computer equipment Nedd used for her consulting work was destroyed.
Lawyers representing storm victims like Nedd are working to file the final lawsuits related to the disaster as its two-year anniversary arrives this week — and the two-year statute of limitations for filing suit begins to expire. Thousands are accusing power companies, distribution companies, electric grid operators and others of failing to prepare properly for it, creating a catastrophe that caused property damage, countless injuries and hundreds of deaths. One expert estimated the cost of the freeze was as high as $300 billion.
Nedd and others see the lawsuits as another way to force change. The defendants would likely need to see that it costs more to fail than to do what’s needed to keep the power on, said Greg Cox, a plaintiffs’ liaison counsel. The various lawsuits are being directed to one judge in Harris County who will handle all of them.
The plaintiffs include a person whose house caught fire when power was restored, another who had both feet amputated after getting frostbite and a disabled person whose ceiling collapsed on him while he was in bed, Cox said.
“This catastrophe was not caused by an act of God, but instead was caused by intentional decisions by individual Defendants made both before and during Winter Storm Uri that were known to other Defendants and caused multiple operational failures which combined to cause the failure of the ERCOT grid,” one lawsuit states.
The story notes the so-far feeble efforts to enact reform and the big legal question of whether ERCOT can be sued. Some number of lawsuits will not survive if the answer to that is no. More from the Chron:
This week’s anniversary of the crippling storm — blamed in the deaths of more than 200 and which left millions of Texans without power, heat and in some cases water — means that the two-year legal deadline for filing related lawsuits is about to take effect.
The result is that lawyers representing more than 1,500 Texans and businesses have filed more than 80 wrongful death, personal injury and property damage lawsuits against more than 360 energy companies, insurance companies and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid manager, since Thursday. Dozens more lawsuits are expected to be filed in Texas courts this week. The deadline depends on the date of the injury to the plaintiff.
The new lawsuits will be combined with the 230 cases lodged in 20 counties across Texas. Those cases, which include more than 1,500 individuals and businesses, have been consolidated into one multidistrict litigation docket in Harris County for the purpose of case management. The plaintiffs seek billions of dollars in damages.
But the individual cases represent just a slice of the legal disputes involving Texas energy companies. A couple dozen power companies have sued ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission challenging their decision to increase the wholesale price of electricity by 650 percent to $9,000 per megawatt-hour. A decision could come this week.
Two other cases pending before the Texas Supreme Court challenge ERCOT’s claim that it is immune from civil lawsuits. A decision on that point is expected this spring.
Meanwhile, three energy companies — Brazos Electric Coop, Just Energy and Griddy — filed for corporate bankruptcy and restructuring.
“This litigation is massive, unlike anything we have ever experienced in Texas,” CenterPoint Energy Executive Vice President Jason Ryan said. CenterPoint is one of the companies being sued.
“What happened during those four to five days in February 2021 was the largest transfer of wealth in Texas energy history,” Ryan said. “The legal issues surrounding Winter Storm Uri are incredibly complex. Billions and billions of dollars are at stake.”
Scores of Texas electric companies asked a Houston appeals court Friday to dismiss the cases against them, saying the claims against them are without legal merit, would “upend the state’s electricity markets” and would “allow for ‘ruinous’ liability for entities that don’t contract with or deliver electricity to consumers.”
“This litigation is as unprecedented as the 2021 winter storm that spawned it,” lawyers for the power generators, such as Dallas-based Luminant and Houston-based NRG, argued in legal documents filed last week. “The stakes are exceedingly high. If permitted to proceed, this litigation will upend the state’s electricity markets, stretch Texas negligence and nuisance law beyond recognition, and make the state a national outlier.”
See here, here, and here for some background on the bankruptcies and the lawsuits related to them. The expectation is that the cases before the appeals court will be allowed to proceed, according to the story. We’re going to have this litigation for a long time. I don’t know how much of that wealth will be transferred back, but it sure needs to be a lot.