Mr D is pursued by a debt collector and refused to pay for alterations to a non-compliant power line on his property (February 2016)

Debt collection and credit default listings, Outages, brownouts and power surges
Case Number 2015/34634
Outcome Conciliation

The Issue

When a falling tree damaged his private overhead electricity line (POEL) during a storm, disconnecting his supply, Mr D's distributor attended the premises to inspect the problem. While there, distributor staff noticed the POEL suppling Mr D with electricity was non-compliant, and so disconnected the supply for safety reasons. Experiencing financial difficulties and health problems, and without an internet connection or a reliable mobile phone, Mr D was unable to contact the distributor for further information about the loss of supply. Mr D then received an invoice for $500 from his distributor, but being unsure what it was for, he did not pay it.

Mr D was then visited at his home by a debt collector who threatened him with further action if the invoice was not paid. A friend of Mr D's, Mr A, called the collection agency on his behalf and found the customer service to be poor. Mr A then called the distributor and it told him that in order to be reconnected, the POEL would need to be replaced with an underground line in order to be compliant with the Electricity Safety (Installations) Regulations 2009, and that as the property owner, it would be at Mr D's expense. Dissatisfied, Mr A called EWOV.

By the time Mr A called EWOV on Mr D's behalf, Mr D had been without electricity for nine months. In light of this, EWOV immediately escalated the case to an Investigation.

The Investigation

In the initial stages of the Investigation we established that Mr A would be handling the case on behalf of Mr D after he completed an Authority to Act form. Mr A told us that Mr D owned the property and lived in a small shack. Since he lost electricity at his home, Mr D used a small generator for electricity, a solar panel connected to a car battery for light, and cooked using a camping stove or an open fire. Mr A was helping his friend apply for Centrelink assistance due to his illness, which was in the process of being assessed.

Mr A provided us with photos and drawings that showed the layout of Mr D's property in relation to the fallen tree, the POEL and the two poles that supported it. The first pole and the fallen tree were situated over the road and across from a neighbouring property (a junk yard with no dwellings or buildings), with the POEL going to a second poll situated on the neighbouring property, before crossing the boundary line into Mr D's house. Given the damage to the POEL did not occur on Mr D's property, and was caused by a tree maintained by the distributor, Mr A questioned whether it was Mr D's responsibility to pay for the cost of repair and reconnection. In order to resolve the complaint Mr A requested the distributor restore the electricity supply, cease the debt collection activity, and provide compensation for the inconvenience caused.

We passed Mr A's requests for resolution to the distributor and also asked it to provide evidence that the fallen tree had been maintained in line with legislation. In addition, we requested copies of any defect notices issued to Mr D in relation to the POEL, as well as any communication between the two parties — and we asked the distributor to propose what it believed would be a fair and reasonable resolution to the complaint.

The distributor emphasised that it has a responsibility to maintain the safety of its workers and the communities in which it operates, and thus Mr D's property was disconnected. It provided documentary evidence of the yearly vegetation inspections it carried out due to Mr D's property being in a hazardous bushfire risk area. It said the invoice for $500 was for the site visit to assess the damaged POEL and rectify the safety hazard. In addition to the POEL repairs, we received a copy of a defect notice informing Mr D that his meter was hanging from a wall without a front cover, and that this needed to be rectified. The distributor maintained that the POEL was owned by Mr D and it was his responsibility to seek the advice of a Registered Electrical Contractor (REC), have the POEL replaced with an underground line, and contact a retailer to have his supply reconnected — at his expense. However, in the interests of resolving the complaint the distributor said it would be willing to waive the $500 invoice and cease debt collection activity, as a customer service gesture.

We sought the expertise of EWOV's technical advisor on the matter. This established that because the POEL was located in a hazardous bushfire risk area, it would need to be upgraded in line with the Electrical Safety (Installation) Regulations 2009, which states: " A private electric line that is to be constructed or a private aerial line that is to be substantially reconstructed in a hazardous bushfire risk area must be placed underground." He said the fallen tree was essentially irrelevant as the meter box was identified as faulty by a meter reader, and the underground upgrade would still have had to occur.

We informed Mr A of the distributor’s response and our review of the relevant regulations, and he agreed to pass on the information to Mr D.

The Outcome

Mr A accepted the customer service gesture of the waived $500 invoice. We suggested Mr A organise a quote from a REC on behalf of Mr D in order to begin the reconnection process. Mr A was satisfied and the case was closed.

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