Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed June 16, 2011

 

 

No. 110166     Sheffler v. Commonwealth Edison Company

Appellate citation: 399 Ill. App. 3d 51.

 

      JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

      Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Garman, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

 

      On August 23, 2007, severe storm systems affected the Chicago area, and there were numerous power outages to customers of the defendant in this putative class action, Commonwealth Edison Company. Five days later, the first of a sequence of Cook County complaints was filed. At issue here is the third amended complaint, which was dismissed with prejudice. The circuit court also refused to allow the filing of a fourth amended complaint. The appellate court affirmed.

      Plaintiffs, asserting negligence, had complained about their financial losses caused by the power outages, and they demanded compensatory damages. The circuit judge said “I don’t think the law provides a relief for the kinds of claims that are stated.” The appellate court, in affirming, said that plaintiffs’ claims for legal relief related directly to the rate-setting functions of the Illinois Commerce Commission, as concerning what constitutes adequate service and whether Com Ed fulfilled its responsibility of providing adequate service. Therefore, the appellate court said, the circuit court did not have jurisdiction over the complaint, and this was properly a ground for dismissing it. The appellate court also said that the damage claims were barred by the provisions of defendant utility’s filed tariff (usually referred to as liability limitations), which specifically exempt equipment malfunctions caused by weather. Therefore, it held, the tariff controls. Despite the fact that the complaint was phrased in terms of negligence, the appellate court found that it was properly dismissed with prejudice, and the supreme court, in this decision, affirmed. Thus, the supreme court agreed that jurisdiction was in the Commerce Commission rather than in the circuit court and also that plaintiffs’ claims concerning weather-related losses were barred by the tariff.

      The plaintiffs attempted to amend their complaint for a fourth time to seek damages in the circuit court under a section of the Public Utilities Act which provides for the seeking of damages before the Illinois Commerce Commission. The supreme court held that this could not be done because the damages sought which are exclusively within the jurisdiction of the Commission. Therefore, the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in denying leave to amend.

      The Public Utilities Act states that every utility must maintain a “registry” of those with special needs for electricity, but no provision requires that such customers be given priority responses in the event of outages. The plaintiffs theorized that this registry provision represents a public policy which could support a cause of action under the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act. In this decision, the supreme court rejected this argument.