Irma-Related Lawsuits Against FP&L Smell Like Greed and Petty Politics

by | Oct 9, 2017

In the days following Hurricane Irma, a handful of elected officials across the state became inundated with calls from frustrated constituents who were still waiting for power to be restored. The politicians, thinking only of how Irma’s damage could hurt them at the ballot box, started pointing the finger of blame at the power companies, setting arbitrary deadlines for power to be restored, and threatened lawsuits.

Hurricane Irma couldn’t have taken a more destructive path for the state of Florida. Working it’s way from south to north across the entire length and width of the state, only the western tip of Florida’s panhandle escaped harm.

The result was one of the largest power outages in U.S. history.

Florida power companies, stretched thin and working overtime with armies of linesmen and technicians, still managed to restore power to 99% of the state in just over a week’s time. By comparison, it took more than 15 days to reach the same point in 2005 following Hurricane Wilma. During the 2005 storm, FP&L reported more than 3.4 million customers without power. But even though Irma knocked out power to 4.4 million FP&L customers, the company still managed to get 99% of their customers restored in just 10 days. Duke and municipal power companies reported similar statistics and timelines.

But 99% isn’t 100%…and in some communities, like Coral Gables, the devastation was intense. The reason is obvious: Coral Gables has a lot of trees. And City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark is proud of it:

“There are more than 40,000 trees that this city has in its portfolio…”

Coral Gables loves its trees so much it has a “portfolio” of them. But after Irma, Coral Gables tree portfolio needed to be updated, because hundreds were uprooted, or dropped large branches, blocking roads, smashing houses and cars, and – SURPRISE! – knocking down power lines in the process.

Uh oh. In the wake of Irma with thousands of voters sweltering without power, the management of Coral Gables tree “portfolio” suddenly became a political liability. Time for Coral Gables politicians to start pointing the finger of blame at FP&L. And what better politician to lead the charge than City Commissioner Frank Quesada.

In addition to being a politician, Quesada also moonlights as the Chief Legal Officer for MSP Recovery, one of the law firms that filed a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit against FP&L because restoring power after Hurricane Irma was taking too long.

Coral Gables has an interesting history when it comes to pre-emptive lawsuits designed to protect political figures trying to cling to power in the city. Coral Gables recently filed suit against Facebook and Instagram in an attempt to unmask political critics responsible for a series of videos critical of how the city has managed its police force. Then there was a lawsuit against a company called Flipkey, one against Miami-Dade County, and now Florida Power & Light. The frequency of the city’s legal action, and its appearance as a political tool, have caused some to openly suggest the lawsuits are frivolous. Even the Miami Herald explored the question of whether or not the lawsuits are warranted:

“The city’s legal team usually settles these cases before trial, including the case against Flipkey, but some critics wonder if their litigious ways are too overreaching. On social media the Gables’ actions against FPL have drawn criticism and cries of “first-world problems” against the mostly affluent city.”

The finger-pointing in the wake of Irma is so shameless that some are suggesting it’s not just political, it’s a naked cash grab. And It’s so obvious and blatant that even the Wall Street Journal sat up and took notice:

Trial lawyers never let a disaster go to waste. Behold the storm-chasing attorneys in Florida trying to exploit a power outage caused by Hurricane Irma. 

Miami-based MSP Recovery Law and Dorta Law have filed a class-action lawsuit against the Florida Power & Light for inadequately maintaining its infrastructure and equipment, which allegedly resulted in the loss of power to nearly 4.4 million customers statewide. The law firms are seeking between $2 billion and $3 billion in damages.

Losing power is no doubt aggravating, but by September 19 Florida Power & Light had restored service to 99% of customers affected by the storm that swept the entire Florida Peninsula. After Hurricane Sandy, Con Edison needed two weeks to restore overhead lines and steam systems for a third of its customers. One percent of Jersey Central Power & Light customers were without power a month after the hurricane.

Utilities are responsible for girding and protecting their power plants, transmission lines and poles. But some damage is unavoidable during severe storms like Irma whose winds exceeded 90 miles per hour. The potential for damage is greater in areas with dense vegetation like the tony Miami community of Coral Gables, which boasts picturesque, tree-lined streets.

How the lawsuits will play out are anyone’s guess. But if cities really want utilities to keep spending millions of dollars on “grid hardening” – as FP&L and other utlities have done over the years – politicians shouldn’t waste hundreds of thousands (and more likely millions of dollars) on legal fees to prop up politically-motivated lawsuits. Especially if they work for the very law firms that stand to profit the most.


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