Craig E. Leen, Coral Gables city attorney. AM Holt

Florida Power & Light Co. is facing a statewide class action lawsuit filed by two Miami-Dade residents who were still without electricity more than a week after Hurricane Irma, with more litigation potentially coming from at least two South Florida cities.

Miami attorney John Ruiz filed a lawsuit Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court on behalf of a single mom and a South Miami doctor who were still waiting for FPL to turn the air conditioning back on. The class action claims FPL breached its contract with customers by collecting a “storm fee” but not adequately preparing for inevitable hurricane power outages.

“It’s just kind of ridiculous for a company to make $1.7 billion in a year and in exchange put at risk the lives of people and people’s property,” said Ruiz, who is with MSP Recovery Law Firm.

Coral Gables is seeking to lead other municipalities in suing Florida Power & Light Co. to speed up power restoration after hurricanes.

So far, Coral Gables’ city commission and Pinecrest’s village council have voted to consider a lawsuit against FPL for leaving customers’ homes hot, sticky and dark for more than a week after Hurricane Irma. More municipalities may follow.

“Other cities that we represent or have represented in the past have contacted us regarding what, if anything, they can do with respect to this situation,” said Mitchell Bierman of Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman in Miami. Bierman is Pinecrest’s village attorney, and his firm represents other municipalities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Collier counties.

Only 67 percent of Pinecrest homes had power by Monday morning, or about 5,000 of 7,500 residences, according to the village. Coral Gables was up to 92 percent by Monday — but that’s not full restoration, which according to city attorney Craig Leen means FPL has violated city and state building codes requiring power.

Coral Gables plans to issue a citation against the power company for up to $15,000 per day starting Monday for its failure to restore electricity to all city residents by Sunday night. Any fines collected will be donated to disaster relief charities, Leen said. The city sent FPL a cease-and-desist letter Friday demanding speedy power restoration, as first reported by the Miami New Times.

“We were basing it on FPL’s own promise, which a lot of people relied on in our city and across South Florida,” Leen said.

The letter also demanded FPL deal with six power lines in downed trees that were blocking Coral Gables roads. The company swiftly addressed the power lines, Leen said.

Any litigation against the company would be based on Coral Gables’ franchise agreement with FPL, Leen said. The lawsuit would seek an injunction or declaratory judgment forcing the company to fund better infrastructure, including underground transmission lines.

Right now, an underground option would cost the city around $17 million per mile — “an astronomical sum,” Leen said. FPL should pay for the infrastructure improvements with the storm surge fees it collects, he argues, because it’s clear the current system can’t withstand a monster storm like Irma.

“We’re thankful it was a tropical storm in this area, but if it had been the Category 4 or Category 5 that had been predicted, it would have devastated the power situation in our city,” Leen said.

Coral Gables is one of South Florida’s ritzier areas and might not have had many residents who did not have the means to safely weather the storm. But that’s part of why the city wants to lead the charge, said Leen, who called the issue “the most important thing I’ve worked on as city attorney.”

“It’s hard for cities to stand up to FPL,” he said. “The city of Coral Gables has the resources and the funding.”

Both Leen and Bierman said the goal of litigation is not to be punitive, but to create better partnerships between FPL and municipalities.

In a statement Monday night, FPL excoriated Coral Gables for its “extreme approach to trees,” saying the company has been rebuffed when it has tried to work with the city to “address the impact of the city’s dense, overgrown vegetation and tree canopy.”
“We understand that it’s extremely frustrating for our customers to be without power,” the company wrote. “That said, frivolous lawsuits and ludicrous code violations that attempt to pressure us into providing preferential treatment for their city will not work.”

The cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale did not respond to requests for comment on whether they might join Leen’s lawsuit. As of Monday, power was out for 3.5 percent of FPL’s Miami-Dade customers, 1 percent of Broward County customers and one-tenth of 1 percent of Palm Beach County customers, according to FPL’s power restoration map.

If FPL asks the state’s Public Service Commission for reimbursement after the storm, Leen said Coral Gables is considering making an appearance in opposition.

“It was very hot,” Leen said. “It was dangerous. Senior citizens died in Broward because of the heat. It’s not acceptable in 2017 that this is still occurring. The state, the public service commission, FPL and all of our local governments need to make this a focus, and Coral Gables is going to be at the lead of that.”