Utility settles lawsuit over woman’s heat-related death
PHOENIX – The state's largest electric company has settled with the family of a Sun City West woman who died of heat-related complications after the utility cut off her power.
Attorney John Brewer who represents the family of Stephanie Pullman sent a notice Tuesday to the Arizona Corporation Commission informing regulators that they have reached an agreement with Arizona Public Service. Brewer asked that the privacy of the family be respected.
More significant, the attorney told commissioners that the family hopes "this statement will conclude the matter and any further inquiries regarding the same.''
But that is unlikely.
Commissioner Justin Olson said that, on a macro level, regulators are attempting to determine "appropriate disconnection policies'' for utilities, especially during the summer months when leaving customers without power could have severe and permanent implications. And he said the settlement between Pullman's family and APS is a "separate, private matter.''
But Olson said that commissioners need answers to what happened in Pullman's case – her power was shut off on a 107-degree day after someone paid only $125 of her $176 bill -- to determine what regulations to put in place when similar situations arise in the future.
"The facts that are available to the commission, the facts that are available to the utility that we need to obtain from them, certainly will be informative as we develop the appropriate policies for the utility,'' he said.
Commission Chairman Bob Burns also said he wants information about the Pullman case as he seeks "the root cause of the problems.''
All that goes to the questions that regulators have for Don Brandt, the chief executive of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of APS. He is due to testify this coming week at a commission meeting.
In a separate written filing, however, Brandt declined to answer questions commissioners already had put to him about what happened in the Pullman case, at least not publicly. Instead, Brandt said he would provide information only to regulators and their staff members, saying that complies with existing commission rules which prohibit the utility from publicly disclosing "customer-specific information.''
But Brandt, in what he did answer, did disclose that Pullman was perhaps within a dollar of not having her power shut off. He said that it has been the company's practice to disconnect only if the delinquent amount was $50 or greater.
He did not say, however, in his public response to the questions, whether there was any attempt to notify Pullman that the $125 payment would not satisfy her bill and would not forestall disconnection.
Brandt also did not respond publicly to questions from the commissioners who said that there was a "door hangar notification'' placed on Pullman's residence on Sept. 5, with her power cut off just two days later. They want to know whether that would have given the 72-year-old woman enough time to mail in a payment even if she responded immediately.
Brandt, however, did say that while hangars are placed at the homes of those whose service was in danger of being turned off, company employees and contractors do not actually attempt to make personal contact with occupants. He told regulators that policy is justified.
"In the past, customers have sometimes threatened and even injured employees or contractors when told their power is at risk of disconnection for non-payment,'' Brandt wrote. He said that is why APS instructs them not to knock on customer doors or ring doorbells when leaving the notice on doorknobs.
And Brandt said that the commission, in a 2005 decision, eliminated the requirement for personal visits in cases where power was going to be shut off.
Burns said Tuesday that answer does not sit well with him.
"There needs to be a process that has actual face-to-face contact,'' he said, versus just putting a notice on the door – and not even knocking to let someone know its there. Burns said that's particularly important in communities like the Sun Cities.
"People don't even come to the front door,'' he said.
"They drive their car into a parking position, whether it's a carport or a garage and they enter the house from the side doors,'' Burns said. "They don't use the front door.''
He said there needs to be a face-to-face notification – or at least voice-to-voice contact.
Last month, after inquiring into the death of Pullman and learning of at least two others, the commission voted to bar APS and most other utilities from pulling the plug on residential customers during the summer months.
Brandt, in the written responses he just provided, said that, as of that moratorium, APS had about 54,000 accounts that were at least 30 days in arrears, with delinquent balances ranging from $75 to more than $14,000.