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Jury reaches $9.3M verdict against Austin Energy, others over electrocution death at construction site

The jury found Austin Energy guilty of negligence that was a proximate cause of a fatal electrocution in 2009.
Credit: Austin Energy
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AUSTIN, Texas — On June 22, a Travis County jury awarded the Wenholz Law Firm, PC, a $9.3 million verdict against Austin Energy and others in relation to an electrocution death at a construction site in 2009.

The jury found that Austin Energy was negligent in operating and maintaining high voltage power lines that ran "dangerously close" to the side of the OK Corral Night Club in violation of the National Electric Safety Code (NESC), according to a press release from the Wenholtz Law Firm

The jury found that the negligence was a proximate cause of an electrocution that killed Jaime Membreno on Feb. 12, 2009.

Membreno was killed while applying stucco to the facade of the OK Corral when the metal lathing he was cutting made contact with an uninsulated power line carrying 7,200 volts of electricity.

Membreno's young son brought this lawsuit against Austin Energy and others, alleging their negligence contributed to his father's death.

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The National Electric Safety Code mandates a minimum horizontal clearance distance of 7-and-a-half feet from the side of a building for powerlines. The jury learned that the lines involved in this incident were more than two feet out of code.

The plaintiff's electrical engineering expert also testified that Austin Energy never inspected the pole and line in question. The expert also said Austin Energy went decades without any systematic, regular inspection program.

However, a City spokesperson told KVUE that Austin Energy has had an inspection and maintenance program in place since 1975, in compliance with the NESC.

Since the pole in question was severely leaning toward the OK Corral, the lines were brought "dangerously close" to the side of the building where the electrocution occurred, lawyers said.

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The jury also learned the pole was replaced and the lines were moved a month after the accident.

"The family is grateful to the jury for its service and in holding Austin Energy accountable for violating safety standards and the absence of an inspection program. This case hopefully will prompt Austin Energy to be proactive and always comply with the NESC to protect public safety," said Dave Wenholz, lead counsel for the plaintiff. "Austin Energy for years refused to accept any responsibility for these security code violations, so I am thankful for the jury's verdict and am proud of my trial team. The family wants Mr. Membreno's death to lead to safe conditions for all of us."

The jury apportioned liability against multiple parties: 34% to the construction company, 30% to the bar owner, 26% to Austin Energy and 10% to the deceased.

A City spokesperson sent KVUE the following statement regarding the verdict:

"Both the City and Austin Energy consider the safety of its residents the number one priority. Ten years ago, a private construction company at the direction of the OK Corral Night Club erected a metal scaffold within inches of a live electrical line in violation of OSHA standards, the National Electric Code and the City’s permit. This resulted in the tragic and preventable death of Mr. Membreno. The jury recognized this error in its verdict against both of those entities.

Austin Energy is an industry leader and abides by both the National Electric Safety Code (NESC) and its own design criteria requirements, which exceeds industry standards. As an industry leader, we strive to ensure that the work that we do is as safe as possible and we continuously identify, report and correct any unsafe conditions. The Utility also seeks to improve the safety of their work and work environment by incorporating safety practices and requirements into work processes."

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