Towson residents might have little recourse for power outage that fried appliances

Mary Munoz woke up in the wee hours of Sept. 23 after hearing a loud crack. After realizing the power was out in her Rich Hill Road home, in Stoneleigh, she went to check on her son, Tomas, before returning to bed.

In that moment, she was unaware that the outage, which also cut power to many other houses in Wiltondale, Stoneleigh and Rodgers Forge, also had destroyed or damaged her washer, dryer and air conditioning unit. Since the outage, other area residents also have reported that the outage damaged or fried appliances in their homes, some of whom — like Munoz — have spent thousands of dollars to repair or replace the items.

Munoz and other neighbors say they’re still unsure if there is a way for them to recoup some or all of the money they have spent on repairs and replacements.

“It’s been a difficult two weeks,” Munoz said Wednesday.

The outage was the result of a driver crashing into a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. utility pole near the intersection of York Road and Worcester Road at 2:15 a.m. on Sept. 23, according to BGE officials. The crash caused high voltage lines to contact low voltage lines, leading to the outage. The incident affected 890 residential and commercial customers in Wiltondale, Stoneleigh and Rodgers Forge.

According to Baltimore County Police, a 22-year-old woman was driving a Nissan Xterra southbound on York Road when she lost control of the vehicle near Worcester Road and struck the BGE pole on Sept. 23 at around 2:15 a.m. The woman was transported to an area hospital with minor injuries, and a blood sample was taken after an officer smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath. DUI charges are pending the results of the blood test, according to Baltimore County police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Peach.

Though most households were back online by mid-afternoon Sept. 23, some residents, including Munoz, were without power until 6 p.m.

Stephanie Strunge, of Ridgeleigh Road in Stoneleigh, said she’s heard of about 20 households on Hatherleigh Road, Stevenson Lane and Ridgeleigh Road that were also affected. Strunge — who lost a dishwasher, refrigerator, air conditioning, a flat screen TV and a coffee pot to the incident — collected the number of households affected on behalf of the Stoneleigh Community Association.

“I am sure there are more,” Strunge said Friday of the number of affected residents.

She expects that the repairs and replacements to her appliances will cost roughly $5,000.

Under an indemnification clause in BGE’s contract, customers use the company’s power at their own risk, though they can file a claim for reimbursement.

The utility encourages affected customers to file a damage claim form, seeking partial or full financial reimbursement for expenses related to a utility outage, that is available on the BGE website, said BGE spokesman Jarrett Carter. Customers can download a claim form on the BGE website or call BGE at 1-800-685-0123 to request that a claim form be mailed to them.

County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, said he began receiving constituent complaints after residents woke and found their appliances fried.

The surge also disrupted the air conditioning unit at Stoneleigh Elementary School, according to Baltimore County School officials. The unit has since been repaired.

“We've seen plumbers, electricians, repairmen and appliance delivery trucks up and down our streets for the past few days,” said Beth Morrow, of Tred Avon Road, in Stoneleigh.

Morrow has spent thousands on repairs to the family’s air conditioning system and the replacement of a refrigerator and small, countertop appliances damaged in the incident. She is pursuing homeowner’s insurance but has also submitted a claim to BGE as Marks advised her to do, she said.

Munoz has submitted a claim to her insurer, but said an agent told her the claim is a “gray area” because the car did not directly hit her home and the power outage was not storm-related.

In such a situation, state officials advise consumers to file a complaint with the Maryland Insurance Administration, said Tracy Imm, a spokeswoman with the administration.

“If their insurance company is denying coverage and saying they’re not liable, we tell people to call us, and we can do an investigation of their policy and the language in their policy,” she added.

The agency's primary role is to protect consumers from illegal insurance practices. However, the investigation is not a guarantee of coverage, Imm said, as insurance policies can vary.

Most Maryland utilities have indemnification clauses that protect them in the case of damage claims, said Maryland Public Service Commission spokeswoman Tori Leonard. The commission oversees public utilities, including BGE.

According to a contract signed by customers, BGE is not liable for losses due to power outages if the interruption is due to causes beyond the control of the company, Leonard said

“On the surface, it appears from the description in this case that this event was beyond the control of the [company],” Leonard said in an Oct. 4 email. “Other Maryland utilities have similar provisions protecting them from liability in their Tariffs.”

Customers are advised to contact utility companies first to attempt to resolve any service quality or reliability issues, Leonard said.

“If the customer is not satisfied, they can file a complaint with our Office of External Relations, which will investigate the dispute/issue.”

Power surges occur more frequently than some homeowners would like, according to Gary Epstein, president of Certified Electrical Technologies, an electrical contracting firm that has offices throughout Virginia and Maryland, including one in Towson, at York Road and Burke Avenue.

Fluctuations in power occur daily and can shorten the life of some appliances, Epstein said. Surges that damage large appliances are less common, he said, but when they happen homeowners are typically looking at $8,000 to $9,000 worth of damage with little recourse.

“Most of the utilities have indemnification for damage caused from using the power,” Epstein said. “It’s basically ‘use our power at your own risk.’”

One way to protect against the damage is to have an electrician install a surge arrester directly onto a home’s circuit breaker. The device protects against damage from surges.

“Unfortunately, when we get a call it’s after an instance like this happens,” Epstein said.

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