Thu, Aug 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

New Yorkers seek relief for blackout losses

NYTIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

From Albany to City Hall, from private law firms to a public power authority, New Yorkers are beginning to seek relief or a refund for money they lost in the blackout.

A New York law firm has already filed a class-action lawsuit against FirstEnergy Corp, the utility that owns four transmission lines in northeast Ohio that failed in the hour before the grid went down. A Queens councilman is planning to file a similar suit in the next few days.

On Friday, Governor George E. Pataki asked President George W. Bush to declare a federal emergency in New York, a move that could begin pumping in federal money to pay for equipment and overtime costs.

And on Tuesday, a host of city officials and local congressmen stood on the steps of City Hall and joined the chorus calling for federal aid.

"This seems to me actually to be something of a no-brainer," said Gifford Miller, the City Council speaker. "It was a national disaster. The financial capital of the world, as well as eight states and 50 million people, lost power for, in some cases, more than a day. That's a disaster just as much as when flooding occurs and people lose power as a result of that. So, all we're asking for the federal government to do is to treat us the same."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ruled out suing to recover damages from the blackout, saying on Monday that he did not even know whether such a lawsuit was legally possible.

"I suspect that the costs of those suits would far outweigh the benefit," he said, in remarks reported in The New York Post. "Some things happen, and there's just nobody responsible. Stuff happens, and you have to adjust to it."

Others were skeptical as well. Andrew Gansberg, an Albany lawyer who is chairman of the New York State Bar Association's Utility Law Committee, said he doubted the suits would bear fruit. To win a case stemming from the blackout, plaintiffs must prove gross negligence or willful misconduct -- in short, that power companies knew of a major weakness in the system and did nothing to correct it.

"It's a very difficult standard to meet," said Gansberg, who represents utilities, not the customers who sue them.

Although the Long Island Power Authority has not yet decided how it will try to recover the US$20 million it says it lost during the blackout, it has hired a law firm to explore its options. The authority's chairman, Richard Kessel, said lawyers would also represent Long Island customers who want to file claims for spoiled food, broken appliances or any other damage from the blackout.

Amid the skepticism about the chances of lawsuits recovering any money, state and local emergency organizations are totaling the economic burden of the blackout to determine whether or how New York can somehow recover the costs.

Though the state has not yet calculated its losses, the city comptroller's office estimated that New York City lost more than US$1 billion. The figure includes US$800 million in lost gross city product and US$250 million in perishable foods that restaurants and residents had to throw out.

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