PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — National Grid is violating federal and Rhode Island laws by shutting off the utilities of low-income and medically vulnerable individuals, according to a class action lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The nonprofit groups Rhode Island Center for Justice and the George Wiley Center filed suit in Rhode Island Superior Court seeking class-action status on behalf of approximately 3,000 households in the state that are considered medically vulnerable and therefore protected from having utilities shut off.
There are five named plaintiffs in the suit, including Penny Medeiros, a 50-year-old woman who relies on an electric-powered oxygen machine to breathe. National Grid abruptly shut off her electricity in August 2014, even though she had notified the company of her medical issues, she said.
“I was afraid I was going to die,” Medeiros said.
Rhode Island law offers protections to people who are seriously ill or disabled, allowing them to submit doctor’s letters to National Grid showing hardship. The electricity and gas utility is also required to allow for a public hearing.
The lawsuit said National Grid isn’t following these laws, and the state’s Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, another defendant in the suit, isn’t enforcing them. It also said the defendants are violating due process rights and discriminating against people with disabilities.
“Not only are those rules not being followed, but disabled consumers are being fast-tracked for termination,” said Robert McCreanor, executive director of the Center for Justice. “The state, through its Public Utilities and Carriers, essentially rubber stamps National Grid’s requests to terminate service to disabled consumer households.”
McCreanor said he believes this is the first lawsuit of its kind to be filed in Rhode Island.
A spokesman for the PUC said the agency doesn’t typically comment on pending litigation.
National Grid spokesman David Graves said shutting off service is the final step in a long process of notification to customers. According to the complaint, Medeiros’ service was shut off before she went through that process.
The Tiverton woman, who lives alone and relies on a nursing assistant, said used several emergency tanks of oxygen before her electricity was restored hours later. She said she now suffers from chronic respiratory failure from a lung infection that was brought on by using so much emergency oxygen.
“This time, if they shut me off, I’m just going to call the ambulance,” Medeiros said. “I’m not going to get sick again.”
The lawsuit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief. It also seeks a temporary restraining order that would force National Grid to restore power to medically vulnerable people who’ve lost it and prevent the company from shutting off service to more people.