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Hartwell Corp. v. Superior Court of Ventura County

ELR Citation: 32 ELR 20477
Nos. No. S082782, 38 P.3d 1098/(Cal., 02/04/2002)

The court holds that the California Public Utilities Commission's (PUC's) regulation of water quality and safety does not preempt residents' damage claims alleging that water providers subject to PUC regulation violated federal and state drinking water standards, but that their remaining claims against the water providers are preempted. Residents filed suit in a California superior court alleging that various water utilities and companies provided them unsafe drinking water causing death, personal injury, and property damage. In response, PUC began an investigation. The water utilities and companies sought a dismissal pursuant to California Public Utilities Code §1759, which bars superior court jurisdiction over any PUC decision or court interference with PUC's official duties. A state appellate court ruled that PUC's statutory authority over water quality and its exercise of jurisdiction in addressing water quality issues preempted actions against the regulated water utilities but did not preempt the actions against the nonregulated water providers.

The court first holds, however, that §1759 only preempts some of the residents' claims against the regulated utilities. The residents' damage claims alleging water contamination irrespective of whether drinking water standards were met are preempted by §1759. An award of damages on the theory that the pubic utilities provided unhealthy water, even if that water quality actually met PUC standards, would interfere with PUC's continuing supervisory or regulatory program. On the other hand, the residents' damage claims alleging water contamination that violated and exceeded federal and state drinking water standards are not preempted. A jury award based on a finding that a public water utility violated state or federal standards would not interfere with PUC's policy of requiring compliance with those standards. The court next holds that the appellate court correctly held that §1759 does not bar the superior court action against the nonregulated water providers.

The full text of this decision is available from ELR (44 pp., ELR Order No. L-447).

Counsel for Petitioners
Donald T. Ramsey
Holland & Knight
10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90067
(310) 552-3800

Counsel for Respondent
John R. Reese
McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen
355 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles CA 90071
(213) 680-6400