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Grieving families face long legal battle one year after deadly Texas winter storm

Key legal questions, such as whether ERCOT can even be sued, must be decided before lawsuits can move forward.

SANTA FE, Texas — Texans who lost loved ones in last February’s freeze are still fighting for justice. But one year later, their legal battle is nowhere close to the end.

The family of Anne Martin is one of at least 170 plaintiffs who have filed lawsuits across the state against power grid operator ERCOT, transmission companies or various retail power providers.

Affectionately known as “Meemaw,” Martin had 18 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and Danny, her husband of 52 years.

“We just done everything together,” Danny Martin said. “We had it all, then all of a sudden, she’s gone.”

The winter storm’s anniversary stirs unwelcome memories of those dreadful days in the bitter cold. The oxygen machine Anne Martin depended on was useless without power, and the prolonged outages left her husband with a powerless feeling as backup air tanks quickly ran dry.

“Nobody told us (the outage) was going to last that long,” he said. “We figured maybe two or three hours or something.”

“Her biggest fear was suffocating,” daughter Heather Tambrella said. “That was her absolute worst fear and it actually came true, how sad is that?”

The Martin's lawsuit and the others filed in the multi-district, or MDL litigation, all have been consolidated to the Harris County courtroom of Judge Sylvia Matthews. But before they are allowed to proceed with depositions or discovery, some key legal questions must be answered.

One of the biggest is whether ERCOT can even be sued.

“ERCOT claims that they are part of the State of Texas,” said Mostyn law firm attorney Greg Cox, a liaison counsel for the plaintiffs.

“Their position is since they are synonymous with the State of Texas, they can’t be sued,” Cox said.

It’s known as the sovereign or governmental immunity defense, and Cox and others believe it’s flawed. In other cases, such as open record law disputes, ERCOT has claimed that it is part of the state and not subject to those regulations.

"They're chameleons. They change their spots and their stripes daily if it benefits them. And we see that quite often,” Cox said. “Very much frustrating, and very much a delay tactic.”

The sovereign immunity battle will likely end up at the Texas Supreme Court, which last March declined to rule on the hotly contested issue in a case involving a power company that sued ERCOT.

For the Martin family and others, the legal limbo leaves them waiting even longer for justice.

“You know, I’m just angry. Honestly, it’s just maddening to me,” Tambrella said.

An ERCOT spokesperson said the agency is unable to comment on pending litigation. CenterPoint Energy, also a defendant in the Martin lawsuit, provided the following statement:

“We understand the severe impact that the historic weather and power generation shortfall emergency last year had on all Houstonians and Texans. While as a matter of company policy CenterPoint Energy does not comment on pending litigation, we want to express our condolences to the family and friends of Mrs. Martin for their loss.”