United Fuel Gas Co. v. Public Service Commission

Decision Date20 March 1928
Docket Number6197.
Citation144 S.E. 723,105 W.Va. 603
PartiesUNITED FUEL GAS CO. v. PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court

Submitted March 14, 1928.

Rehearing Denied May 27, 1928.

Syllabus by the Court.

While a public utility may be required, under reasonable rules and regulations, to serve every applicant requiring its service within the territory it professes to serve, it cannot be required to extend that service outside of such territory.

The public duty of a utility is largely determined by the service it professes to render, and what such profession covers is a question of fact rather than of law.

The fact that a public utility by special contract extends service to some persons living without the limits of the territory where it is required to furnish service to all will not generally require it to furnish like service to others outside of such territory.

Petition by the United Fuel Gas Company to review an order of the Public Service Commission preventing petitioner from discontinuing the supplying of gas to certain consumers. Order reversed and set aside.

B. J Pettigrew and Harold A. Ritz, both of Charleston, for petitioner.

F. M Livezey, of Huntington, for respondent.

MILLER P.

On the petition of the United Fuel Gas Company we are asked to review and reverse an order of the Public Service Commission requiring the gas company to continue to furnish natural gas to certain persons named therein and to others who may apply for such service and comply with the lawful rules and regulations of the gas company, until permitted to discontinue such service by order of the commission.

In the year 1916, C. E. Hanson and three others applied to the United Fuel Gas Company for natural gas from its high pressure line running along Elk River about three-quarters of a mile from the nearest applicant's residence. The application, signed by the parties, provides:

"This application, when accepted by you, shall, together with your present rules and regulations, printed on the reverse side hereof, and such other reasonable rules and regulations as may hereafter be adopted by you, constitute a contract between you and the undersigned applicant."

Rule 14 printed on the back of the application under the general head, "Additional Rules for Consumers outside of Towns and not on Low-Pressure Plants," is:

"14. The line from which the gas is supplied by the company is not intended and cannot be maintained solely for service to scattered consumers in country districts, and the company reserves the right at any time to cease furnishing gas through such line, either temporarily or permanently, and to change, repair or remove such line, or change the use of it. Any contract for service from such line may be terminated either by the consumer or the company, upon thirty days' notice from one to the other. The company shall not be liable for any deficiency to the supply caused by the use of pumping or compressor stations, breakage of lines, or other causes on account of anything done under the provisions of this paragraph."

Pursuant to the acceptance of these four applications by the gas company it laid 3,856 feet of one-inch pipe from its high-pressure line to the neighborhood of where some of the applicants lived. The applicants extended lines to their respective dwelling houses; and the company began the service of furnishing gas to them. In June 1917, J. L. Gillespie, J. L. Meadows, and H. D. Cabell, by letter, applied to the gas company for service from its one-inch line. The second paragraph of their letter reads as follows:

"We recognize that the service through said one-inch line may not be adequate and that you may, at any time you desire, take up said one-inch line and discontinue service. We therefore agree in consideration of the foregoing that in the event we do not obtain satisfactory service through the proposed connections or in the event you shall hereafter at any time desire to take up said one-inch line and discontinue service, we will make no objection thereto."

In addition these applicants signed formal applications similar to the one set out above, which were accepted by the company. They extended the lines constructed by some of the other consumers, and were furnished meters and service by the gas company.

In the spring of 1927, the company gave notice to the five consumers then using gas, that it would, on April 30th, discontinue the service. These five consumers applied to the Public Service Commission for relief, praying that an order be entered requiring the gas company to continue the service. The Commission held that the company could not limit or restrict its public duty by private contract, and that while the commission may not pass upon the validity of a private contract, it could disregard the provisions of such a contract where it attempts to limit the public duty of the company or to restrict or limit the duties or powers of the commission.

Admitting this proposition as correct, what is the public duty of the utility in the premises? While it may be true that a public utility must serve every applicant within the community it professes to provide service for,...

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