SC: Meralco can’t cut power without 48-hr notice
The Supreme Court on Friday said it had ordered Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) not to disconnect electricity service to any of its customers without serving them notice of “at least 48 hours” to comply with due process and to pay P150,000 in damages to a complainant in a 24-year-old case.
In a statement, Meralco said it had yet to receive a copy of the high court’s ruling. It also said that it was company policy to serve notice and give ample time to its customers to settle their accounts, particularly those who were late in their payments, before their disconnection.
“In any case, we will respect and abide by the said decision,” it said.
In a statement, the high court said it had junked the petition of the power distributor that sought to reverse a three-year-old ruling by the Court of Appeals (CA) upholding a Valenzuela City Regional Trial Court decision (RTC) in favor of a 1999 complaint for damages against Meralco filed by local resident Lucy Yu.
The Supreme Court said that Meralco personnel had forced their way into the premises of the warehouse of New Supersonic Industrial Corp., which was owned by Yu’s family, in Valenzuela.
Meralco personnel handed a “notice of disconnection” and “immediately disconnected” the electricity supply of the factory and the Yu residence.
The CA noted that the Meralco representative was accompanied by “several armed persons whom he introduced as members of the military.”
The Supreme Court did not release a copy of its decision and did not disclose when it had decided on Meralco’s petition assailing the appellate court’s ruling that the company had violated Republic Act No. 7832, or the Anti-Electricity and Electric Transmission Lines/Materials Pilferage Act of 1994.
Under Section 4(a) of the law, an electric utility may only immediately disconnect services “after due notice.”
“The prior written notice must be given at least 48 hours prior to the disconnection, pursuant to due process requirements,” the high court said.
The court said Meralco’s move was done “in bad faith” for failing to follow the prior notice requirement under RA 7832 and violated due process.
Yu filed a damage complaint before the Valenzuela RTC Branch 172 after the incident.
The Valenzuela court ruled in favor of Yu, prompting Meralco to elevate the case to the CA, which affirmed the RTC ruling on Nov. 26, 2020.
The Valenzuela RTC ordered Meralco to pay Yu P300,000 as temperate damages, P100,000 as moral damages, and P50,000 as exemplary damages.
In its November 2020 ruling, the CA upheld the RTC’s award of temperate and moral damages and found merit to increase the amount of exemplary damages to P500,000.
Meralco appealed the CA ruling in the Supreme Court, which subsequently junked its petition.
The Supreme Court ruling, however, reduced temperate damages to P50,000 and exemplary damages to P100,000. It deleted the award for moral damages for “lack of basis.”
Meralco said that the serving of a 48-hour written notice prior to disconnection had always been the company’s policy, according to its spokesperson Joe Zaldarriaga.
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He said, however, that he could not discuss the specific details of the Yu case because they had not received a copy of the Supreme Court decision.
In Meralco’s Twitter account, which also serves as its online customer service portal, the power distributor said that it usually physically mails a disconnection notice to customers with overdue payments two to three days after the due date.
Upon receipt of the disconnection notice, customers are given another three days to settle their bills.
In its ruling, which was upheld by the high tribunal, the appellate court said that Meralco had argued in its 2000 response to Yu’s complaint that she failed to pay her P33.9-million bill on time.
Meralco also pointed out that they had found Yu to be using a reversing current transformer with a removable tapping wire. RA 7832 classifies this transformer as evidence of illegal use of electricity.
It added that it had complied with the requirements under the law, and that the disconnection “was done in good faith and in the regular performance of duty.”
This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has warned Meralco against cutting a customer’s power supply without prior notice even if the connection was found to be illegal.
In 2016, the Supreme Court Second Division denied a similar petition filed by Meralco assailing a CA ruling that it violated RA 7832 in disconnecting the electricity supply of Sulpicio Ramos and his wife.
Even if the two were caught using a tampered electrical installation, the Supreme Court ruled that Meralco “had no authority to immediately disconnect the respondents’ electric service.”
To “serve as a warning against repeating the same actions,” Supreme Court ordered Meralco to pay the Ramos couple P210,000 in actual damages, P300,000 in moral damages, P500,000 in exemplary damages and P100,000 in attorney’s fees.