By BILL HUTCHINSON, ABC News
(HOUSTON) — Texas power providers Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and Entergy Corporation have been hit with a $100 million lawsuit accusing them of gross negligence in the death of a child whose family suspects he suffered hypothermia when they lost electricity and heat in their mobile home during a historic cold snap.
The mother of 11-year-old Cristian Pineda filed the wrongful death lawsuit in Jefferson County District Court, alleging the utility giants “put profits over the welfare of people” by ignoring previous recommendations to winterize its power grid, which sustained an epic failure last week and left more than four million customers without heat and electricity as temperatures in some parts of the state plunged to single digits.
“Despite having knowledge of the dire weather forecast for at least a week in advance, and the knowledge that the system was not prepared for more than a decade, ERCOT and Entergy failed to take any preemptory action that could have averted the crisis and were wholly unprepared to deal with the crisis at hand,” the lawsuit states.
Cristian died on Tuesday in his family’s mobile home in the Houston suburb of Conroe while sharing a bed with his 3-year-old brother under a pile of blankets in an attempt to stay warm, according to the lawsuit.
“This is a young man who died for no reason other than corporate decisions,” the Pineda family attorney Tony Buzbee told ABC News on Sunday. “There are a lot of decisions that were made a long time ago that led to the death of this young man. That is unacceptable.”
As of Sunday, more than 30 people had died in Texas in the past week due to the severe weather, including many from carbon monoxide poisoning after people used cars or generators to keep warm during the massive power outage, according to state officials.
Buzbee said he now represents seven families who lost loved ones as a result of the severe weather and said more lawsuits will be filed against the power companies.
“Cristian’s lawsuit is the first and his lawsuit should be the first,” Buzbee said. “This kid is going to change Texas and God bless him for that.”
The sixth grader, who migrated to the United States two years ago with his family, was a healthy boy who on the day before his death was playing in the snow for the first time in his life, his mother, Maria Pineda, told the Houston Chronicle.
Maria Pineda found her son unresponsive the next day and called 911 while attempting CPR, according to the lawsuit.
While the Pineda family contends the child froze to death, the official cause of death is pending the results of an autopsy, according to the Conroe Police Department.
Entergy — which delivers electricity to customers in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — released a statement to ABC station KTRK-TV in Houston saying, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of life in our community. We are unable to comment due to pending litigation.”
ERCOT, which manages the electric grid for more than 25 million customers, said in a statement that it had not yet reviewed the lawsuit but “will respond accordingly once we do.”
“Our thoughts are with all Texans who have and are suffering due to this past week,” ERCOT statement continued.
ERCOT officials said it initiated emergency rolling blackouts on Feb. 15 after a snowstorm blanketed much of Texas and sent temperatures falling to sub-freezing levels. The agency said it took drastic action to avoid a catastrophic statewide blackout.
“Because approximately 46% of privately owned generation tripped offline this past Monday morning, we are confident that our grid operators made the right choice to avoid a statewide blackout,” ERCOT said in its statement.
But the lawsuit — filed on behalf of Maria Pineda and the estate of Cristian Pineda by attorney Anthony Buzbee — contends that power was turned off for “those who were most vulnerable to the cold.”
“Hence, there were images of empty downtown Houston office buildings with power, but the Pineda’s mobile home park was left without power,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit blamed ERCOT for misleading customers by assuring them the rolling blackouts would be temporary.
“The blackouts instead lasted days. The failure to adequately inform Plaintiffs of the length of the blackouts prevented them from properly preparing for the lack of power, or leaving the area. Accurate information might have saved Cristian Pineda’s young life,” the lawsuit alleged.
The Pinedas were without power and heat for two days and during that time temperatures plummeted to as low as 10 degrees in their area, the lawsuit states.
Instead of informing customers, like the Pinedas, that the rolling blackouts would be prolonged, ERCOT sent out messages on social media for customers not to do laundry on Valentine’s Day and to “unplug the fancy new appliances you bought during the pandemic and only used once,” according to the lawsuit, which included an image of ERCOT’s Valentine’s Day social media post.
The lawsuit also noted that following a severe winter storm in 2011, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation issued a report informing ERCOT that “additional winterizing of the power infrastructure in Texas was necessary.”
A large number of units that tripped offline or could not start during the 2011 storm demonstrated that “the generators did not adequately anticipate the full impact of the extended cold weather and high winds,” according to the report cited in the lawsuit.
Because the ERCOT system does not cross state lines, the agency is not subject to federal regulation or oversight, according to the lawsuit.
The recommendations were voluntary at the time, but will become mandatory at the end of next year. In an interview last week with KTRK, an ERCOT official seemed to suggest that at least some of the recommendations were followed.
“In 2018 it was similarly cold, similarly windy, and we had very few generating plants offline,” ERCOT’s senior director of operations Dan Woodfin told KTRK. “It appeared that those best practices and what the generators were doing in that regard was working.”
“Rather than invest in infrastructure to prepare for the known winter storms that would most certainly come and potentially leave people vulnerable without power, the providers instead chose to put profits over the welfare of people, and ERCOT allowed them to do so,” the lawsuit states.
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