Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Lawsuit of Woman Who Froze to Death After Gas Shut-Off Must First Go Before Utility Regulator

Image of an orange pipe valve handle.

Wrongful death claim against gas company for shutting off service must first go before utility regulator.

Image of an orange pipe valve handle.

Wrongful death claim against gas company for shutting off service must first go before utility regulator.

A wrongful death lawsuit against Dominion Energy Ohio for shutting off a paying customer’s gas service must start with the state utility regulator before moving to common pleas court, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

In a unanimous per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court directed Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Peter Corrigan to take no further action in a case filed by the estate of Virginia Vigrass.

The family explained that during the COVID-19 pandemic, Vigrass refused to allow Dominion inspectors to enter her Lakewood home to inspect the gas meter. Even though she was paying her gas bill, the company shut off Vigrass’ gas service in January 2022. The pipes in her home burst and flooded the residence, the family maintains, and Vigrass was found dead and frozen to the floor.

East Ohio Gas Company, which does business as Dominion, argued that the Vigrass family lawsuit centers on the allegation that the company violated state laws regarding properly disconnecting gas service. Complaints about gas service issues are exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), the company asserted.

The Court agreed. The opinion stated that a utility could be required to pay triple the amount of damages caused by a service violation, but the PUCO must first determine if the utility committed the misconduct. If the PUCO finds the utility at fault, a common pleas court can consider the claim for damages, the Court concluded.

Elderly Woman Wrote Gas Company
In October 2021, Dominion requested access to Vigrass’ home to inspect the meter inside. Because she was immunocompromised and susceptible to COVID-19, she did not allow Dominion to enter. The company attempted to contact her in the following months via phone and paper notices.

Vigrass did not respond to the phone calls but sent letters to Dominion. Vigrass’ family alleges that Dominion did not respond to the letters. Her gas service was disconnected on Jan. 10, 2022. Concerned neighbors notified the police about not seeing Vigrass. On Jan. 29, 2022, police found the residence flooded and Vigrass frozen and dead.

Vigrass’ brother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dominion in November 2022. He also argued other common law claims, including negligence and destruction of property. Dominion asked Judge Corrigan to dismiss the case, arguing the common pleas court did not have jurisdiction to hear the complaint. Judge Corrigan denied the motion, arguing he had jurisdiction to hear the case because the family was alleging common law claims that common pleas courts traditionally consider.

Dominion then sought a writ of prohibition from the Supreme Court seeking to prohibit Judge Corrigan from hearing the case and asking that any orders the judge issued be vacated.

Supreme Court Analyzed Utility Complaint Laws
The Court has previously ruled that common pleas courts do not have jurisdiction to hear complaints regarding a utility’s rates and services because the General Assembly has “created a broad and comprehensive statutory scheme for regulating the business activities of public utilities.”

The opinion noted that under R.C. Chapter 49, a complaint can be filed with the PUCO against any utility whose services are unjust, unreasonable, or violating the law.

Vigrass’ family argued that the case is not about “rates or services” but purely the harm the company caused by failing to acknowledge the dangers of shutting off a homeowner’s gas service during the middle of a Northeast Ohio winter.

The Court had to determine whether the case centers on a complaint of rate and services. In its 2008 Allstate Ins. Co. v. Cleveland Elec. Illum. Co. decision, the Court developed a two-part test to determine whether a claim must go to the PUCO first. To go before the PUCO, a complaint must require the “administrative expertise” of the commission to resolve the issue, and the complaint must be about an act that “constitutes a practice normally authorized by the utility.”

The Court noted the family’s lawsuit repeatedly points to the shut-off of the service as the cause of the property damage and, ultimately, Vigrass’ death. The lawsuit cited Dominion’s failure to comply with R.C. 4933.12(C) regarding shutting off gas service in the winter months. Whether Dominion complied with the service disconnection law is an issue that requires the PUCO’s expertise to determine, the Court concluded.

In reviewing the second part of the test, the Court found Dominion is authorized under state law to terminate service if it is not granted access to metering equipment.

“We need not resolve the merits of whether Dominion conducted a lawful shutoff – that is a merits question left for resolution by the commission,” the opinion stated.

The Court vacated all previous orders by Judge Corrigan in the case.

2023-0833. State ex rel. E. Ohio Gas Co. v. Corrigan, Slip Opinion No. 2024-Ohio-1960.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.