San Diego Gas & Electric Company v. Covalt


Summary: There is no evidence that exposure to low frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are harmful to the public health. However, this did not stop EMFs from becoming the subject of a number of toxic tort claims in recent years. Atlantic Legal is committed to debunking the junk science that is the basis of the claim that EMFs cause cancer, educating the courts whenever possible about the scientific facts that have been obscured by the misguided hysteria that presently surrounds EMFs. In Covalt v. San Diego Gas & Electric Company, 13 Cal. 4th 893 (1996), Atlantic Legal successfully seized the chance to explain to the California courts just how unfounded the widespread fear surrounding power line EMFs has been.

Martin and Joyce Covalt, a San Clemente couple, sued San Diego Gas & Electric for recklessly installing additional power lines near their home. San Diego Gas & Electric obeyed the law in every particular when installing these lines, and the EMF dosage emitted by the new lines was minimal. Nevertheless, the Covalts alleged that the power lines subjected them to unhealthy levels of EMF, seeking damages for pain and suffering and for property devaluation. Although they had not experienced any healthy problems, they also sued for the costs of future medical monitoring. The suit raised two interlocking issues: whether tort claims for EMF exposure are in any way legitimate, and whether the California courts are the proper place to pursue such claims.

The state appeals court found that the Covalts should have pursued their claim not in the trial courts, but with the California Public Utility Commission (PUC);which since 1993 has taken the position that there is no evidence that EMFs pose a threat to public health. The appeals court stressed that complaints such as that brought by the Covalts are within the proper jurisdiction of the PUC, noting that to award damages, "The superior court would have to come to conclusions contrary to those reached by the PUC in considering the same issue".

Following this ruling, the California Supreme Court agreed to review the case. It was at this point that Atlantic Legal became involved. On behalf of a number of prominent scientists and Nobel laureates who have studied EMF issues, Atlantic Legal filed an amicus brief arguing that the PUC has been correct in its determination that there is no evidence that EMFs pose a threat to public health. Our brief consisted of a detailed summary of the epidemiological studies that have been conducted on EMFs and a thorough explanation of why those studies do not support the thesis that EMF exposure is in any way dangerous to human health. Our clients concluded that there is no need whatsoever for the PUC or any other corporate or governmental body to take action to eliminate or reduce the type and level of EMFs generated by power transmission lines. The California Supreme Court concurred with Atlantic Legal’s brief.

Finding that the Covalts’ complaint should have been handled by the PUC, the court threw out the case. The Court then went on to expose the Covalts’ claims as the nonsensical result of junk science. Atlantic Legal applauds the California Supreme Court for its clear-sighted refusal to be misled by the profoundly unsound principles upon which the Covalts’ case was founded.

Click here to view our brief
Filed: 1995-09-01
Decided: 1996-01-01