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Texas Attorney Sues Energy Companies Over Deaths In Cold Weather

A woman walks through falling snow in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. (Eric Gay/AP)
A woman walks through falling snow in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. (Eric Gay/AP)

The family of 95-year-old Doyle Austin filed one of a number of lawsuits from families who lost loved ones during the winter storm in Texas.

Austin, a former Negro League baseball player, lost power on a Sunday when the storm struck. When members of his family went to check on him Tuesday, they discovered him unresponsive. When the emergency services unit arrived, Austin was pronounced dead on the scene. 

Attorney Larry Taylor remembers Austin for his larger-than-life personality and sharp sense of style. Taylor says he used to walk past Austin’s house growing up and celebrated holidays with him and his sister. 

“He encouraged many of us to continue to seek out both athletics and academics,” Taylor says of Austin. “And so he was a pillar of the community as well as a hero to the family.” 

Now, Taylor is representing the family’s case. As part of his argument, Taylor says that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) knew that their power grids needed upgrades but failed to do anything about it. 

ERCOT has been grantedsovereign immunity, which protects government agencies from lawsuits. Texas’ Supreme Court is planning to rule before June on whether people can sue ERCOT. This pending lawsuit was filed by a different energy company. Taylor says his lawsuit is different.

“We’re talking about those of us who live in Texas, even myself, who was affected, who were not protected during this storm and that people lost their lives. And so we believe that while the defendant is the same, the situation is different,” Taylor says. 

Taylor also represents the family of Gilbert Rivera, who died at 60. The Harris County medical examiner discovered his cause of death to be hypothermia. 

Taylor received calls from several families seeking representation. He frequently hears stories that are progressively worse than the last. He names an 11-year-old boy who died, as well as children who suffered carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to keep warm. And more elderly people died of hypothermia. 

It’s hard to determine the entire scope of the death toll because it’s difficult for families to reach out to him when they’re still in the midst of grief, he says.

As the crisis continues, Taylor wants state and federal leaders to learn that this situation affects all residents, especially communities of color and rural communities who don’t receive the same level of care.

“I want them to learn that while we beat our chest and say that we were independent and Texas is able to take care of itself,” he says, “I want them to realize that taking care of ourselves means taking care of our citizens.” 

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtJeannette Jones adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.