Eliseo De La Guardia was climbing an avocado tree behind a Broward County duplex when the limb he was balancing on got too close to a power line carrying 7,620 volts. The contact sent electricity through his body.
For years, neighbors had complained to the power company that the lines dividing the small block’s backyards were choked by tree limbs. When branches touched the lines, home lights dimmed and electricity visibly jumped from one stretch to another. And when the wind blew, the avocado tree’s branches would hit the wires and spark.
Florida Power & Light, which provides electricity to about half of the state, knew of at least nine times trees on that block interfered with power lines in the years leading up to the accident, according to court records. But when De La Guardia climbed the avocado tree to pick fruit in January 2013, the company hadn’t performed routine trimming there for 15 years.
Two days later, De La Guardia died from his injuries. He was 42.
People are electrocuted at a higher rate in Florida Power & Light’s service area than almost any other electricity provider in the state, a Tampa Bay Times analysis found. The only two that outpaced it were small power companies serving areas of north Florida.
Over a 13-year period through 2020, Florida Power & Light reported 118 deaths from people coming into contact with its power lines or other equipment, records show. That’s more than double all the other electric companies in Florida combined. Hundreds more suffered life-altering injuries. The company’s service area stretches from South Florida into Manatee County and parts of Central Florida.
Florida Power & Light says in court filings it does not investigate the accidents to discern patterns or identify ways to prevent them in the future. Nor does the state utility regulator tasked with safety.
The Times found that more than half the deaths happened around homes when people touched tree limbs or cleared plants away from power lines. Though Florida Power & Light serves roughly the same number of customers as the state’s other utilities in total, it has about six times the number of deaths from people touching or trimming vegetation.
Those killed around vegetation were not people paid by the power company to work around electrical wires. They were people like De La Guardia picking fruit, a teenager climbing up stalks of bamboo or lawn maintenance workers hired by homeowners.
Such deaths and injuries spurred at least 42 lawsuits against the Juno Beach-based company, the Times found. In 14 of those cases, the people filing the lawsuit said the power company was aware of problems before the accident.
“The safety of our customers and workforce is our top priority, but it is a shared responsibility of everyone,” David Reuter, chief communications officer for the company, said in a letter to the Times. “We believe that any death is one too many when it concerns members of the public coming into contact with our equipment.”
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Florida Power & Light is the third-largest power company in the country by customers served — about 5 million.
Despite recurring lawsuits and deaths, Florida Power & Light trims trees around neighborhood power lines less often than the state’s other investor-owned utilities and has fought proposals and ignored expert recommendations to trim more frequently, records show.
“The breakdown is Florida Power & Light,” said David Mishael, a lawyer who has handled four lawsuits against the utility. “They want to make such a profit for their shareholders and for themselves that they don’t want to trim the trees.”
Florida’s power companies have one main goal — to keep the lights on. But the state’s iconically lush trees and plants are among the biggest factors working against them.
Avocado trees can grow nearly 5 feet in a single year. Bamboo can grow several feet in a week.
Vegetation is consistently one of the top five causes of power outages in reports submitted each year by the state’s investor-owned power companies, which serve most of the state’s utility customers. Trees and plants caused 22 percent of the 150,000 outages in 2020 reported by Florida’s five investor-owned power companies.
The Times analyzed incidents reported in the years after Florida Power & Light and its investor-owned peers were ordered by the state to begin what would become its current vegetation management program. All the state’s utilities are required to report deaths, injuries and “significant” safety incidents involving their equipment to regulators.
More than a third of the injuries Florida Power & Light reported happened around homes when people were picking fruit, trimming trees or otherwise interacting with plants in yards.
Joe Dicicco, 57, had complained to Florida Power & Light for months about a cluster of bamboo on the side of his Venice home. The former junior high teacher said he and his neighbor reported power outages at least six times after the swaying stalks touched nearby overhead lines. Things escalated in the spring of 2015 when the bamboo caught fire after touching the lines and later knocked them down. But after six months, the power company hadn’t removed the stalks, and a Category 1 hurricane was expected in a matter of days.
As Dicicco attempted to trim them himself, a stalk hit the power lines and an electric shock threw Dicicco to the ground. His torso was impaled on a previously cut cluster of bamboo. His injuries, which ended his career, make it difficult for him to leave home for extended periods. Florida Power & Light has denied responsibility for Dicicco’s injuries in its response to a lawsuit Dicicco has filed against the utility.
“I’m not the same person,” Dicicco told the Times.
Dozens of others died while climbing or trying to tame backyard vegetation that the utility company had not.
Daniel Gonzalez, 24, was hired to trim an almond tree that overhung a power line in a Dade County yard. The homeowner sought his services in 2015 after four calls to Florida Power & Light failed to draw a response, according to court documents from a lawsuit that followed.
As Gonzalez was finishing, he realized the tree had become electrified by the power lines. He warned his cousin, but it was too late for Gonzalez.
“I hear him tell me just, ‘D, the tree has electricity,’” David Acuna, his cousin, testified during the lawsuit. “And that’s the last I heard from him.” Florida Power & Light denied the allegations against it and the case was later settled.
Among the youngest electrocuted was Justin Dominguez, 15. Dominguez was playing with his cousins behind his neighbor’s Fort Myers home in 2011. He was the best tree climber in the family, his cousins said during court hearings afterward. To demonstrate his skills, he shimmied up a long cluster of bamboo.
Florida Power & Light knew the bamboo stalks caused outages and damage to the nearby lines. The company’s inspectors had ordered the bamboo to be removed three years earlier after attending to a downed line, court records show.
But it didn’t remove this one. The plant was so tall by the time Dominguez climbed it that it touched the power lines, shocking him. He died shortly afterward.
A jury found Florida Power & Light liable for $23.75 million in a lawsuit that followed, including $15 million in punitive damages. An appeals court dismissed the punitive damages.
Most cases don’t make it as far as a trial. Twenty-seven of the cases the Times reviewed were closed as of June, 19 of which were settled for undisclosed terms.
Reuter, the Florida Power & Light spokesperson, said the company does not comment on pending or past litigation. But he disputed that Dominguez was “playing,” saying he was nearly two stories high on the bamboo 10 feet away from the power line when it made contact. His letter noted the utility’s death rate has remained relatively steady despite “significant” population growth.
The Florida Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, ordered investor-owned power companies to establish a consistent trimming schedule following devastating back-to-back hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. The commission recommended three years for power lines that run along main streets and three years on neighborhood lines, which run adjacent to homes.
Florida Power & Light asked for double the length — six years — on neighborhood lines.
One of the main drivers was cost, Florida Power & Light said at the time. The longer cycle, the company argued, would save $30 million a year.
Regulators approved the company’s request, giving it one of the longest neighborhood trimming cycles of any of its peers in the state. Duke Energy trims its neighborhood lines every five years, while Tampa Electric and Gulf Power Co. both trim every four years. Only Florida Public Utilities Co., which has a small fraction of Florida Power & Light’s customer base, has a six-year cycle for neighborhood lines in its northern Florida territory.
Years before regulators required a trim cycle, Florida Power & Light hired contractors to examine its vegetation management program. It was told by both that it needed to do more frequent tree trimming, according to reports contained in court filings. Both recommended cycles shorter than six years.
The company’s maintenance schedule proved ineffective at keeping many tree limbs away from lines between cycles, records and court filings allege.
A company employee acknowledged the challenges in court testimony following the death of Gonzalez, the man hired to trim an almond tree in Dade County.
“You can’t trim a tree to keep it clear for six years,” Chris Halsey, an employee for Florida Power & Light called on in 2017 to testify in the case. “That was not going to happen just due to the way trees grow and their growth rate and a bunch of other factors.”
Benjamin Koubek, a worker for one of the power company’s vegetation management contractors, said in a 2015 court deposition that the utility told customers that neighborhood lines were trimmed an average of “four to six years.”
“But I know that that was not the case,” he said. Instead, some of those lines weren’t being trimmed at all, he said.
Koubek also said that he “knew for a fact that there was no trim history on certain” neighborhood lines.
Yet in a report filed in early 2013 with the Florida Public Service Commission, Florida Power & Light said it had trimmed “100.3 percent” of its neighborhood lines since its new schedule was put into place in 2007.
The power company said performing routine trimming isn’t easy or welcome by many customers. Its workers, the company said, often encounter locked gates and dogs let out to deter them. Or they experience physical assault, including being spat on.
Sometimes, police are called on them and customers file lawsuits over trimming. That’s particularly true, Florida Power & Light said, for fruit and palm trees. The power company said its territory has more fruit trees than any other utility, and more vegetation generally.
When Florida Power & Light is sued over deaths and injuries, it often points the finger at customers and contractors.
The company’s position is that once its contractors trim the trees around neighborhood lines, customers are supposed to keep those trees in check.
Its customer agreements require that businesses and homeowners ensure any new trees planted are an appropriate species and distance from its lines. Florida Power & Light said it encourages this through its “Right Tree, Right Place” program to help guide customers and does outreach in multiple languages.
“Personal accountability by members of the public is the single most important driver of safe behavior around electrical equipment,” the company’s spokesperson said.
Underscoring the customer’s responsibility is one of Florida Power & Light’s main legal strategies when lawsuits arise. It blamed the 15-year-old whose death brought a judgment for climbing the bamboo in the first place; the court ruled the utility was 70 percent at fault.
The utility often blames those performing the work for not having proper tools and equipment. And it blames the contractors it has worked with for years.
In many of the vegetation accident cases the Times reviewed, Florida Power & Light argued that if there is an issue with its vegetation management program, the companies it contracts with to perform the work are to blame.
In one instance, Florida Power & Light went after one of its main contractors, Lewis Tree, for settlement costs after someone died. The contractor refused to reimburse the utility in a case where an elderly man was electrocuted trimming a tree for a member of his church. Reached by phone, Lewis Tree declined to comment.
Florida Public Service Commission officials said they only have the authority to ensure the poles and lines themselves are up to code. While they are aware of a general pattern of people dying or being injured while picking fruit, they only look for indications of equipment problems.
“The only way to fix that is to require the lines be even higher, but that’s going to be very expensive” and require other practical considerations, said Tony Velazquez, safety supervisor for the regulator. “You just can’t raise the lines like that so that people don’t do silly things.”
The accidents that Florida Power & Light reports to regulators likely do not represent everyone who was injured or killed around homes.
The Times found one accident reported to regulators as an injury even though the person later died. Two other court cases describing injuries during tree trimming around power lines were not reported.
Last year, the power company reported 10 deaths, seven of which happened during tree trimming and fruit picking around homes.
Eight years after her husband De La Guardia died, Magaly Terry-Gonzalez now lives in a modest apartment a few minutes’ drive from the house they shared. Florida Power & Light denied the allegations against it in court, later settling with Terry-Gonzalez. She still misses moments with De La Guardia, like cooking meals for him and his friends as they laughed and played dominoes.
In a photo album with pictures of the couple and her children, De La Guardia has a black cross drawn on his forehead to mark his death.
“I never forgot,” she said.
Former staff writer Ileana Najarro contributed to this report.
Support local journalism
The Tampa Bay Times created a searchable database of the deaths and injuries that utilities report to regulators since 2008, cataloguing each by their circumstances. It reviewed thousands of pages of court documents and examined regulatory filings and public meeting transcripts. It involved hundreds of hours of work over the course of several months, including public records requests and interviews. To sustain this work, become a subscriber or donate to our Journalism Fund today.