Supreme Court Weighs in on Philly Gas Works

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The state Supreme Court recently came down with an unsurprising ruling that the Municipal Tort Claims Act is constitutional. This is the statute that states that most municipalities are only liable for $500,000.00 for any negligent act. I worked with this statute often when I served as a Deputy Attorney General.

Why is this topical right now for Philadelphia? Not to beat a dead horse, but because of PGW. The city itself and Philadelphia Gas Works are covered by this law. This means that an catastrophe such as a gas main explosion, no matter how negligent PGW was and no matter how much damage is done, that PGW will only be liable for $500,000.00 in damages.

Couple this with the fact that PGW has one of the oldest and most decayed pipeline delivery systems in the country. It is reported that nearly two-thirds of its over 3000 miles of gas mains that deliver gas to homes and businesses are "at risk," which means that they are aging cast iron or unprotected steel and more prone to breakage. Some of the pipes date back to the 1800’s. Seriously? PGW’s plan is to replace all "at risk" pipes by 2100. That’s the year 2100. Again, seriously?

The case that the Supreme Court just ruled on was particularly horrific. The poor schoolgirl was run over by a school bus due to the school district’s negligence. She lost her left leg and suffered other severe injuries. A jury awarded her $14 million. The Supreme Court said that the law is what the law is and it is up to the legislature to change it. And they’re right, unfortunately.

When there was a gas main explosion in Allentown a few years ago, destroying eight homes and killing five people, UGI, the gas utility there, probably paid out $25 million in damages and fines. The same thing happening here would cause PGW to pay the $500,000.00 into court and the court would split up the money between everyone who suffered losses. Is that fair?

One of the reasons that PGW’s plan to replace dangerous pipes will take the better part of this century is because they won’t have to pay out the true costs of any negligence. Another reason is that they do not have the same access to capital that a private company has. UIL Holdings, the company that won the bid to purchase PGW, committed to speeding up that process dramatically. And, of course, it would have only been in their best interests to do so if they completed the sale.

The Supreme Court opinion came down while the deal to sell PGW was still pending. City Council should have approved the PGW sale because the city should not be in the gas business in the first place. City Council should have approved the PGW sale because it is a good financial deal for the city. City Council should have approved the PGW sale because an efficiently run gas utility will spur development and attract businesses and jobs. As the Supreme Court decision drives home, City Council should have approved the PGW sale because it would be unfair for anyone to be harmed by PGW’s negligence and not be fairly compensated.

Most importantly, however, City Council should have approved the PGW sale because to do otherwise would be put pandering to special interests above the very lives of our citizens.

This commentary is by Matt Wolfe, a candidate for City Council at Large in the Republican Primary.