South Lake Union resident Ian Wathen was surprised when he opened his most recent Seattle City Light bill to find it totaled $1,841.57 — and even more surprised when he learned it wasn’t a misprint.
Reps for the utility told him they’d been under-billing everyone in his building for two-and-a-half years and were now rectifying the error. They said City Light had a right to back-bill customers for up to six years if the customers had previously been under-billed.
“I understand mistakes happen, but this is unbelievable,” Wathen said. “Imagine if I had received the same bill for a six-year period: It would have been nearly $4,500!”
But the bill is no shock to attorney Ari Brown of the Terrell Marshall Law Group, who last week filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Seattle City Light, seeking unspecified damages over the use of what it calls “wildly incorrect” estimates to bill customers.
The suit, filed in King County Superior Court on behalf of plaintiff Anthony Deien and “all others similarly situated,” alleges Seattle City Light invested in faulty — and costly — technology and then, when it failed, sought to correct the system’s errors by serially overcharging customers.
In Deien’s case, the $1,000 power bill he got in April 2018 ultimately made the Seattle apartment he’d been sharing with his sister unaffordable, according to the suit. Previously, they had been paying $120 to $150 every two months.
Brown said the kilowatt-hours listed in City Light’s “exorbitant bills have often been completely inconsistent with the actual amount the customer used.”
“It appears Seattle City Light rushed out a technological upgrade before it was ready,” he said in an email. “Rather than admit its mistakes, Seattle City Light tried to cover them up by billing customers based on estimates. Not only did its cover-up billing processes violate the Seattle Municipal Code, Seattle City Light serially overcharged its customers — often to extreme degrees.”
The suit alleges the utility violated its contract as laid out in city law and violated the state Consumer Protection Act.
If certified as a class-action suit, it would be open to any Seattle City Light customers who, in the past four years, received a power bill based on estimated power usage. It was unclear Wednesday how many of City Light’s 450,000 customers that would include.
City Light spokesperson Scott Thomsen told The Seattle Times in January 2018 that state law doesn’t allow City Light to write-off high bills.
He also predicted, back then, that problems caused by incorrect estimated readings would disappear by the end of 2018, when City Light was expected to have finished installing the remainder of 420,000 to 430,000 digital meter readers.
On Wednesday, Thomsen declined to comment on the pending litigation and deferred questions to a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s office. That spokesperson, Dan Nolte, said the lawsuit’s claims are being reviewed.