The private company that took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission and distribution last year is facing its first class-action lawsuit from big food franchises and other businesses following a massive blackout that plunged most of the island into darkness earlier this month.
Four corporations in charge of managing food chains operating in the U.S. territory have sued Canadian-American company Luma Energy on behalf of business owners and vendors in Puerto Rico. The chains include Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and Sizzler.
Wendco of Puerto Rico, MultiSystem Restaurant, Restaurant Operators and Apple Caribe are seeking $310 million in damages, according to the lawsuit filed on Monday.
Alberto Couvertié Barrera, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said that number is an estimate of the losses that the businesses incurred following the April 6 blackout. On that day, at least 1.2 million power customers lost their electricity. It took Luma Energy four days to fully restore the power.
"Our lawsuit is based on Luma's demonstrated negligence," Couvertié Barrera told NBC News in a phone interview from the island on Thursday.
Luma Energy took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission and distribution on June 2021. Shortly after taking over, a large fire at a substation in the capital of San Juan left 900,000 customers without power.
Island lawmakers questioned Luma Energy last fall on whether the power company was improving Puerto Rico's electric system amid growing rolling blackouts.
But this month's blackout, the biggest so far this year, enraged power customers, who already pay almost twice as much as customers in the U.S. mainland for unreliable electricity.
"The fact is that the electric grid that LUMA inherited remains incredibly fragile because of years — if not decades — of neglect and lack of maintenance under the past operator," Luma Energy told NBC News in a statement. "While LUMA can’t comment on any pending litigation, we recognize the deep frustration and impact that was caused by the recent April 6th island-wide power outage."
Puerto Rico’s electricity system was decimated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, triggering the world’s second-longest blackout. Emergency repairs were made at the time, but the reconstruction and essential work to modernize the island’s antiquated electric grid has not yet begun.
The federal government has already committed $12 billion in aid toward revamping Puerto Rico’s energy sector.
Luma Energy has launched an investigation "to understand how such large outages have occurred in the past, and to prevent it from happening in the future," the company said.
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