Court of Appeal reverses $4 million emotional distress judgment

Wilson v. Southern California Edison (2015) 234 Cal.App.4th 123 (California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Four) [published]. The plaintiff experienced what she called a “tingling sensation” at her showerhead that turned out to be stray voltage emanating from the next-door power substation owned by GMSR’s client, Southern California Edison. Undisputed evidence, including the plaintiff’s own expert, established that stray voltage inevitably occurs in a grounded system; that the regulations of the Public Utilities Commission required Edison’s system to be grounded; and that the substation fully complied with all PUC regulations. Undisputed evidence, again including the plaintiff’s own expert, established that the current was barely at perception level and incapable of causing harm. Nevertheless, the plaintiff recovered $4 million on theories of negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and nuisance—$1 million for emotional distress (allocated among the three claims) and $3 million in punitive damages. Central to her claim of emotion distress was a panoply of disabling physical symptoms that she claimed the current had caused. The Court of Appeal reversed with directions to enter judgment for Edison on negligence, IIED and punitive damages, agreeing with GMSR’s arguments that that there was no substantial evidence connecting the current with the physical symptoms; that there was no substantial evidence of a breach of any duty or of any outrageous conduct; and that there was no evidence of approval or ratification of any tortious conduct by an Edison managing agent. The court reversed for a new trial on nuisance, agreeing with GMSR that the CACI nuisance instruction, CACI No. 2021, is inadequate. It directed the trial court to supplement that instruction with instructions drawn from the Restatement discussion of nuisance.