On December 15, 2017, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, issued its opinion in Southern California Gas Co. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County. In reversing the lower court’s decision, the appeals court concluded that Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) could not be held liable in tort for economic damages in the absence of a transactional relationship unless its actions caused personal injury or property damage. This case underlines the importance of familiarity with the state legal protections that can shield utilities from claims for damages due to the indirect harms stemming from major service or infrastructure disruptions.
The Court of Appeal held that SoCalGas owed no duty to the business plaintiffs in the class action, who “claimed no injury to person or property. Instead, they alleged the gas leak and subsequent relocation of [nearby] residents caused crushing economic loss to their businesses.” The court explained that, under California law, “[g]enerally a defendant owes no duty to prevent purely economic loss to third parties under any negligence theory.” The appeals court determined that none of the various exceptions to this general rule applied to SoCalGas’s actions because those exceptions generally held true only when there was a direct injury to persons or property. Accordingly, SoCalGas could not be held liable to the plaintiffs because no injury to persons or property occurred and no transactional relationship existed that was intended to “directly” affect the plaintiffs.