A group of law firms filed a lawsuit last week against Central Maine Power for allegedly misleading customers in response to complaints about overbilling. In its second class-action suit against CMP, the law firms of Lipman & Katz; Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette; and the New York law firm of Napoli & Shkolnik allege that CMP committed fraud by training its customer service representatives to blame customers for their extraordinarily high electric bills last winter. “Rather than acknowledging” billing errors, the suit, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, states, the utility company told customers that the high bills were due to a cold snap that caused furnaces to run more, electrical appliances, bad wiring, well pumps or children “playing too many video games.”

“All of this was done to hide the real story, that CMP’s software program and meters were defective,” the firms wrote in a statement. “The CMP personnel knew when the statements were made to the customers ‘that it was the customers’ fault’; CMP knew that it was untrue and it was done to hide their own errors.”

The overbilling controversy emerged in the months after October 30, when CMP switched from an old main frame computer to a new electronic billing system. Since then, about 97,000 CMP customers saw their bills increase by 50 percent or more and another 200,000 CMP customers saw their bills increase by up to 50 percent, according to internal CMP documents. The class-action lawsuit seeks to recover excess amounts due to overcharging as well as punitive damages.

“When the customers did not pay, CMP, through their software program, served a ‘disconnect notice,’” the lawsuit states. “CMP did it knowing the bills were excessive and that the customer was entering into the winter season. People were caused to readjust their priorities so as to not lose their heat during the winter, so some went without food and medications.”

In a statement, CMP said it “vehemently denies” the fraud allegations and questioned the timing of the suit, as the same law firms filed a separate class action lawsuit last month alleging that the company overcharged customers. CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said the Maine Public Utilities Commission should first finish its investigation into the overbilling allegations.

“It seems more like a stunt to attract attention than anything else,” wrote Rice. “The Maine Public Utilities Commission continues its investigation and has yet to issue its findings and recommendations. Under Maine law, the PUC is the body specifically charged with ensuring fair, accurate electric bills for all customers.”

In May, the Portland Press Herald reported that CMP knew that its new billing system had persistent problems, but the company has disputed that it caused bills to arbitrarily spike. Last week, CMP released a video featuring CEO Doug Herling apologizing to customers for not responding well to customer complaints about its billing problems.

CMP customers who wish to join the latest class action against CMP should contact christielee@ravenstrategiesLLC.com.