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Brown v. Jersey Central Power and Light Co.

Decided: October 24, 1978.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Monmouth County.

Conford, Pressler and King. The opinion of the court was delivered by King, J.A.D.


Plaintiffs appeal from a summary judgment entered in favor of defendants dismissing plaintiffs' action for Donald Brown's personal injuries and the derivative claim of his wife, Annette Brown, based on theories of negligence and strict liability in tort. Hereinafter reference will be made to the injured plaintiff Donald Brown only (Brown).

The original complaint filed against Jersey Central Power and Light Company (Jersey Central) alleged that plaintiff Brown was injured as a result of negligence which caused an explosion at the Highland Air Force Base where he was engaged as a civilian employee electrician. Jersey Central supplied commercial power to the military installation. By amended complaint plaintiffs joined as additional defendants (1) Glen L. Martin Co. (Martin), a defense contractor, who allegedly participated in the design and construction of the facility where Brown was injured; (2) G & W Electric Specialty Co. (G & W) and (3) S & C Electric Company (S & C). The latter two defendants were electrical equipment manufacturers whom plaintiff claimed were involved in the installation, maintenance, or repair of the electrical equipment involved in the accident.

On July 30, 1971 plaintiff Brown was serving as a line-electrician in the Post Engineer's office at the base's diesel power plant. On that date he was severely burned by a 4,000 volt copper-to-copper arc as he entered the switch-gear room in Building 118 at the base. The accident happened as he entered the room to perform maintenance work on the transfer switch assembly housed in a free-standing metal cabinet.

At the conclusion of discovery all defendants moved for summary judgment, denying any legal responsibility to plaintiff. In addition to a factual denial of responsibility, Martin relied on the bar of N.J.S.A. 2A:14-1.1, asserting that "any deficiency in the design, planning, supervision or construction of an improvement to real property" for

which it was allegedly responsible as causative of plaintiff's injuries was barred because any services which it furnished in the installation of the structure were rendered more than ten years before the accident.

The report of plaintiff's expert consulting engineer, Walter LaPierre, was the focal point on the motion for summary judgment, because of the electrically sophisticated nature of the claim. Plaintiff used the report of LaPierre to resist defendants' respective factual contentions that they made no causative contribution to the accident. LaPierre's report was based on a review of plaintiff's counsel's file and a visit to the site. He described the mechanism of injury as follows: "[H]is burns were the result of externally applied heat. This heat came from a copper to copper 4 Kv. electric arc which expelled a violent burst of intensely heated air, copper vapor, and molten copper particles against the front of his body from his thighs to his head." Brown was burned over 50% of his body.

The arc occurred across the tops of the movable blades of a transfer switch housed in a free-standing metal console or cabinet-type assembly inside the switch-gear room. Plaintiff was standing three to four feet in front of the transfer switch when the arcing occurred. Plaintiff walked in front of the switch-cabinet door at the precise instant when the arcing occurred. He was exposed to current on the order of 20,000 amperes until the fuses blew, probably in 1/10 of a second.

Brown had originally responded to a trouble call on the day of the accident concerning an erratically functioning computer. The problem was caused by line-voltage fluctuation which was ultimately resolved months later by installation of stabilizing transformers within a van housing the computer. After several trouble-shooting routines were tried Brown was assigned to clean three load-interrupters located in the diesel housing contained in the transfer-switch assembly cabinet in Building 118. Brown was proceeding to this task when the accident occurred.

The metal door on the front of the switch-gear cabinet was open at the time of the accident. This metal door, if closed, would have fully protected the metal switch blades from conditions external to the cabinet, such as moisture. Plaintiff and a coemployee had been in the switch-gear room in Building 118 a few minutes before the accident. They had opened the cabinet door to inspect the switch-gear blades. At his deposition plaintiff could not recall if he or his coemployee closed the cabinet door before they left the building. Plaintiff then returned a few minutes later and the last thing he remembered was walking through the doorway to Building 118.

Plaintiff's expert directed his inquiry to the crucial question, "What made the switch [-gear] blade tips arc over?" He concluded that "there are several factors in the development of a most probable answer to this question, (1) the weather, (2) the ventilating opening on the wall of the switchgear room, and (3) the location of Building 118."

LaPierre's analysis proceeded as follows. He first noted that "unusually violent weather patterns" persisted at the time of the accident and concluded that "Very probably the switch arc over was encouraged by a strong electrostatic voltage induced by electrical disturbances in the atmosphere."

Secondly, and most significantly on the issue of these defendants' liability, with respect to the ventilating opening, plaintiffs' expert stated:

(2) The ventilating opening:

The switchgear room was provided with a single ventilating opening in the outside wall. This opening was three feet wide by two feet high. It was 48 inches above the floor and six feet from the far end of the room. See Figure 2.

It can be seen from Figure 2 that wind-driven rain could reach the interior of the diesel generator end of the transfer switch if the door were wide open -- as it was at the time of the accident. For a room of this type, this ventilating scheme is unusual and dangerous. Rain driven into the exposed, uninsulated transfer switch blades would cause the fireworks endured by Mr. Brown.

In electrical equipment rooms or vaults of this type, it is standard practice to locate one ventilation opening near the floor and one near the roof to remove any heated air and to keep the room dry.

Thirdly, LaPierre concluded, "The switchgear room is in a building located on the summit of a hill in the Highlands." This location exposed the structure to the full force of wind and weather.

A supplemental report by LaPierre more specifically pinpointed the inadequate nature of the protective measures for the electrical equipment, insofar as they bore on Brown's accident. He stated as follows:


In my report of February 11, 1975 the cause of the 4 kv flashover, which burned Donald Brown, was postulated to be wind driven rain. An open window at eye level height existed in the switchgear room where the accident occurred. The existence ...

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