Defendant Public Service Electric & Gas Co. (P.S.E. & G.) seeks to dismiss, on motion, those counts of both plaintiffs' personal injury complaints alleging strict liability in tort, and implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for particular use, as being inapplicable as a matter of law.
Plaintiff Mario Aversa has been employed by Whippany Paper Board Co., Inc. (Whippany) for about four years as an electrical maintenance worker. Upon arriving for work on June 19, 1979 he was advised of an "electrical shutdown" and that his supervisor was looking for him. Plaintiff proceeded to the "powerhouse," which is a location inside the plant where Whippany generated its own electric power at a maximum capacity of 480 volts. At the "powerhouse" plaintiff was advised that his supervisor was outside the building. He found his supervisor and a few other employees outside, around a separate small structure known as the "switchhouse" or "vault." P.S.E. & G. provided a back-up service to Whippany's electric generator system which tied in at the "switchhouse." Plaintiff was instructed by his supervisor to measure and see if any power was entering the switchhouse. Plaintiff returned to the plant to obtain testing equipment, which had a maximum capacity to measure 600 volts, and returned to the switchhouse. He had never been inside or worked around the switchhouse before. Plaintiff entered the switchhouse with a coemployee, plaintiff Peter Frankowski. Once inside the switchhouse Aversa looked for notices or warnings as to the voltage in the switchhouse, and
seeing none, proceeded to the primary service wire, climbed two or three steps up a ladder and placed his voltage testing meter at a point directly above the disconnect switch. An electrical flash occurred whereby Aversa sustained the force of the electrical arc in the upper part of his body. Plaintiff Frankowski was thrown back from the force of the flash.
The electrical input at Aversa's contact point was 4,160 volts. Although he alleges there were no warnings or notices inside the switchhouse concerning the existence of 4,160 volts, a sign reading "Danger High Voltage" was attached to the entrance door which he alleges could not be seen at the time of the accident because the door opened outward leaving only the inside of the door visible.
A factual dispute exists as to the ownership, control and maintenance of the electrical equipment inside the switchhouse. For the purposes of this motion, the court is required to view the facts in a light most favorable to the party resisting summary judgment and against the moving party. Hume v. Bayer, 178 N.J. Super. 310, 312 (Law Div.1981); Ruvolo v. American Cas. Co., 39 N.J. 490 (1963); Judson v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co. of Westfield, 17 N.J. 67 (1954).*fn1
The electricity supply was brought into the switchhouse from the nearest utility pole by an aerial drop line provided by defendant. This line was spliced to another outside the switchhouse, which ran through a conduit pipe to the inside of the switchhouse. After the electricity went through the meters, it was stepped-down by transformers located directly outside the switchhouse, from 4,160 to 480 volts.
Plaintiffs aver that in failing to lock and seal the circuit breakers and in failing to provide proper directions as to the safe use of their product, electric power, introduced into the stream of commerce, defendant is liable on the basis of strict liability since the product was improperly designed, and further breached its implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for particular use. Defendant's motion for summary judgment asserts that a strict liability, as well as an implied warranty, cause of action is inapplicable against an electric utility, inasmuch as liability concerning the escape of electrical current is tested only by reasonable care and foreseeability standards.
Defendant relies upon Black v. Public Service Elec. & Gas Co., 98 N.J. Super. 366 (App.Div.1968), rev'd 56 N.J. 63 (1970), as well as several out-of-state cases, for the proposition that the liability of electric companies must be based on negligence and not strict liability principles. In Black plaintiff sought damages under the Wrongful Death Act from an electric company where decedent was killed when a crane with which he was working came in contact with a high voltage overhead wire. The court held that the test of liability is whether, under the particular circumstances, the injury ought reasonably to have been anticipated, with due regard to reasonably probable contingencies. Id. 98 N.J. Super. at 372. It specified that the liability of utilities is grounded in the failure to exercise due care, noting that an overly strict standard of care would make the electric company virtually an
insurer, "contrary to the established law of this State that utilities are not ...