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Jetter v. Piedmont Natural Gas Company, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

October 14, 2019

DONNA JETTER
v.
PIEDMONT NATURAL GAS COMPANY, INC. ET AL.

          Session October 9, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 18C1746 Kelvin D. Jones, Judge

         This is a negligence action brought by an absentee homeowner against two public utilities to recover compensatory damages. The plaintiff's unoccupied residence was damaged when frozen water pipes ruptured during the winter and after gas service to the property was terminated. The defendants, Piedmont Natural Gas, Inc. and Duke Energy One, Inc. (collectively, "Defendants"), filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure 12.02(1) and (3), arguing the court lacked original jurisdiction over the subject matter and that venue was improper because the Tennessee Public Utility Commission ("the Commission" or "the TPUC") had exclusive and original jurisdiction over the claims at issue. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the action in its entirety. This appeal followed. We hold that the Commission did not have original or exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over the claims at issue and that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over the claims at issue, and it was the proper venue. Therefore, the judgment of the trial court is vacated and this matter is remanded to the trial court with instructions to reinstate the amended complaint filed by the plaintiff, to afford Defendants thirty days to file a responsive pleading, and for further proceedings consistent with this decision.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Vacated and Remanded

          Taylor Payne, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for the appellant, Donna Jetter.

          Paul S. Davidson and Michael C. Brett, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Piedmont Natural Gas Company, Inc. and Duke Energy One, Inc.

          Aaron J. Coklin, Nashville, Tennessee, for amici curiae Tennessee Public Utility Commission.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Andy D. Bennett and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         Donna Jetter ("Plaintiff") owns unoccupied, residential property located at 23 Waters Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee, 37206 ("the Property"). In her complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants replaced the gas meter at the Property in September 2017, while Plaintiff was residing at her primary residence in Sparta, Tennessee. She states she received no notice and was unaware the gas service had been terminated until February 2018, when Metro Water Service notified Plaintiff that thousands of gallons of water were flowing at the Property. Plaintiff visited the residence and found the crawl space flooded, the Property damaged, and the gas service disconnected. She contends the water pipes burst because, without gas service, the furnace was inoperable.

         On July 9, 2018, Plaintiff commenced this negligence action in the Circuit Court for Davidson County against Defendants, alleging that Defendants damaged her residence by removing and replacing a gas meter without providing notice to her and by failing to take proper steps to reconnect the service. In her Amended Complaint, Plaintiff supported her allegations of negligence by citing to certain rules and regulations adopted and enforced by the Commission, alleging that these rules and regulations established a duty owed to her by Defendants. Plaintiff also cited various administrative provisions of the Tennessee Public Utility Commission Rules ("TPUC Rules"), Tenn. Comp. R. & Regs. 1220-01-01-.01 to -04-13-.17, to invoke the doctrine of negligence per se.

         On October 9, 2018, Defendants filed their Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02(1) and (3) motion to dismiss on the grounds that the Circuit Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because the Commission has exclusive jurisdiction to enforce the TPUC Rules cited in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. Further, Defendants contended that the TPUC Rules establish an administrative remedy, which Plaintiff failed to exhaust before filing this action. Defendants also argued that the Circuit Court was not the proper venue in which to bring Plaintiff's claims.

         In support of their motion to dismiss, Defendants asserted the TPUC has exclusive, initial jurisdiction over alleged gas pipeline violations; therefore, the Circuit Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction and was an improper venue. They further alleged that Chapter 1220-04-05 of the TPUC Rules governs this dispute, and Plaintiff failed to exhaust administrative remedies pursuant to TPUC Rules 1220-04-05-.47(8)(a).

         Plaintiff filed a timely response in opposition to the motion to dismiss relying on two main arguments. She asserted that our circuit courts have general jurisdiction over negligence claims, so regardless of the fact the Amended Complaint relies upon the TPUC Rules to establish Defendants' duty, Plaintiff's decision to not follow the procedures in TPUC Rule 1220-04-05-.47 is not dispositive. She also ...


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