Who is Liable for Private Utility Damages?

Investigating Damages

A hypothetical scenario: 811 was called and lines were marked prior to excavation. A second, unidentified utility running below, and parallel to, the marked utility is damaged. The end user gets a high bill - they call the utility company. The utility company calls the excavator. The excavator calls the contracted public utility locator. It's like the scene from The Office where Michael, Dwight, Andy and Pam are all standing around pointing finger guns at one another. No one in this scenario is a double-agent; we all want the same thing: safe underground utilities. Unfortunately, it often ends up in the hands of insurance companies, attorneys and even courts of law to determine who is liable for the damages.

Public or Private?

Due to lack of education and legislation surrounding private utilities, most insurance companies, attorneys and even courts don't necessarily know that this is the first and most important question to determining liability. State One Calls (811) are legally obligated to [and limited to] marking only public utilities. Therefore, if a utility is considered private - they can be eliminated from liability very quickly, as private utilities fall outside of their scope of work.

What's the Difference?

Public utilities are those that are owned and maintained by the utility company. They are often described as utility lines that run from the company's main to the user's meter. Public utility locating is required by law, prior to excavation. This "free" service is actually performed (or paid for) by the utility owner to protect their assets.

Private utilities are the responsibility of the property owner, whether commercial or residential. They are often referred to as the lines that run from the utility's meter to the facility or between facilities. It is not required by law (in most states) to have private utility lines located, prior to excavation.

Public Utility Liability

811 is the law in every U.S. state and territory. Whoever does or does not make the call - you can count on hefty fines (in addition to the cost of damages) if 811 laws are not observed, in full. It becomes a bit more muddled though, as we consider how damages occur even after 811 has been called. Was timely response observed? Were lines marked accurately by the utility owner or 811 contractor? Were tolerance zones and regulated practices observed by the excavator?

Private Utility Liability

The more our infrastructure evolves, the greater the likelihood of private utilities on excavation sites. Liability is more complicated, due to lack of legislation to support damage prevention. By large, private utilities are considered the responsibility of the property owner. Therefore, it often comes down to the terms of the contracts they have with their contractors to prevent personal liability. Contractors must also be mindful of the terms of subcontractor agreements to mitigate liability for private utility damages.

SEE the Difference

Mason Private Locating has invested in interactive educational tools for our website, including a simulator to help users better understand the complexity of underground infrastructure and the difference between public and private utilities. We hope that this reiterates where risk exist between the two - and more importantly, excavation safety.

Explore Underground Infrastructure

MPL's "Guaranteed Locate" Option

Our Call Center Representatives are excellent resources for helping you determine the likelihood of private utilities on your excavation site. If you determine, together, that private utility locating services should be performed, you will have two options: Private Locating or Guaranteed Locate. Both services are identical, however, Guaranteed Locate offers our customers additional liability coverage if utility damages occur. For an additional $35 per hour, Guaranteed Locate provides up to $15,000 in coverage. This unique option offers additional value and protection for our customers.

We encourage you to explore our website for more helpful information about the differences between public and private utilities. Our Call Center Representatives are available Monday-Friday, from 7am to 5pm EST to answer any questions you may have or talk to you about our Guaranteed Locate option. If you have an after-hours emergency locate request, please leave a message and someone will get back with you as soon as possible.


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