Three of the Knob Hill families, with Simona Wilson at the forefront, who are battling Southern California Edison over dangers allegedly posed by its Topaz Substation.
A neighborhood fights a giant and wins Round 1
Strange things have been happening in the Knob Hill neighborhood of Redondo Beach for decades.
Some were relatively minor annoyances. Appliances and door knobs gave off shocks, light bulbs popped out with great regularity, and ceiling fans would suddenly start twirling in middle of the night. Others were more alarming. Small animals were frequently found dead in one backyard, and small children were shocked as they stepped into an inflatable kiddie pool in another backyard. Most alarming, dozens of residents, unbeknownst to each other, suffered ailments that included insomnia, and severe headaches. Two little girls who lived 200 yards apart — on either side of the Southern California Edison electrical substation at Knob Hill and Prospect Avenue — were afflicted with inflammation of their digestive systems and became malnourished due to their inability to process food.
Nobody began connecting the dots until 2011, when Simona Wilson, a 32-year-old mother of three young children, suffered what one doctor later described as “recurrent electrocution.” And the source of this problem, it would eventually be realized, was her next door neighbor, SCE’s Topaz substation.
It all began in March of that year, when she did a remodel of the bathroom in her master bedroom. The bathroom had a curious feature – a porcelain tub raised two feet off the ground that included a jerry-rigged shower handle. She converted the tub into a stone tiled shower with three metal fixtures.
Wilson, a successful real estate professional who specialized in large health care property deals, was an avid athlete – a runner, swimmer, and workout enthusiast. As a result, she often showered two or three times a day. Less than a week after the remodel was completed, she began suffering from nausea and severe headaches. Wilson’s hands, legs, and feet began turning bright red and going numb. At other times, sharp pains shot through her legs, arms, and shoulders. It grew progressively worse.
“By mid-April, I was really, really sick,” Wilson said later. “I couldn’t feel anything in my hands and feet. I just felt fatigued all the time, and nauseous, and my body was off. I couldn’t function. I couldn’t hold my children…I couldn’t feel the gas pedal when I drove. Very bizarre things.”
Finally, with the help of an electrician, Wilson discovered the problem. A current of electricity was running from her showerhead through her body at a low enough voltage to not be noticeable, but strong enough to dramatically impact her health. That jerry-rigged bathtub had apparently served a purpose — it kept the person in it from completing a full circuit from the showerhead to the electrified ground.
What followed was a lengthy dispute with Edison which involved dozens of technicians showing up to try to mitigate the problem, which apparently had to do with grounding problems at the Topaz substation. At one point, an SCE representative suggested to Wilson — whose health problems were just beginning — that studies of dairy cattle (who are most frequently subjected to “stray voltage” of the kind Wilson may have been exposed to) showed that the levels of electricity running through her were negligible.
“Are you comparing me to livestock?” she remembered asking.
The conflict might have been settled if SCE had agreed to purchase the home, which was one of several on the 800 and 900 block of Knob Hill that the company had originally built as part of its all-electric Gold Medallion program of the 1960s. Instead, the company fought Wilson tooth-and-nail, offering to attempt to mitigate the problem but not buy the house; she was forced to move out and default on a home she no longer felt safe enough to raise her family in.
Finally, in February of 2013, Wilson took on SCE in a Torrance courtroom. A dramatic three week trial included an expert witness hired by SCE electrocuting himself in court in an effort to show the harmlessness of low level electrical current and revelations that the Southern California Gas Company had for years been at odds with Edison over voltage running throughout the neighborhood along its gas pipes. As the Gas Company’s district operations manager William Perry testified, there were two main concerns: shocks and ignition. The Gas Company had long been aware of a stray voltage problem at Knob Hill, he said, but when technicians found voltage ranging from 30 to 90 volts on the line to Wilson’s home, it was the final straw.
“That’s the one that really got my attention,” Perry said.
The jury ordered SCE to pay Wilson $4 million, including $3 million in punitive damages for its “negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” The decision, which SCE later appealed, could have implications throughout the state for the company.
“It’s a reality check for them,” Wilson said of SCE the day the jury handed down its decision. “I think, even going into closing arguments, and even the punitive [damages] argument, they still think they did nothing wrong. This is just like a customer service issue to them, like trimming your trees so the power lines aren’t in your tree branches.”
“It’s a victory in the sense that they have to continue to address it publically and they can’t keep putting it under the carpet, like they have been doing,” Wilson said. “They are held accountable….And who knows where else they may have this in their thousands of substations in California?”
When Wilson launched her fight with SCE in 2011, her neighbors began having group meetings at which they realized problems existed in many households. Two more lawsuits against SCE are pending for the coming year, both featuring some of the highest profile trial lawyers in Southern California, including an attorney from the family that successfully fought the famed Erin Brokovich trial. In total, more than 70 local residents are fighting SCE regarding its operations at Knob Hill.