On Valentine’s Day last year, San Antonians woke up to a winter wonderland.

South Side resident Chris Mendoza remembers thinking the scene outside was magical. A lifelong San Antonian, he, his wife Leticia Mercado and their two teenage children had hardly ever seen snow.

At first, the historic freeze didn’t seem like it was going to be that serious for the Mendozas. Their street only lost power for about three hours, Chris Mendoza recalls, and the roads in their area weren’t too bad so long as you drove slowly.

Mendoza drove his diabetic father Zeke Mendoza, 61, who lived a block away, to his dialysis appointment the following day in his black pickup truck, but said his father drove himself the rest of the week.

But a week later, when the city was finally getting back to normal after suffering through the worst power crisis in state history, Mendoza entered his father’s home to find him on the living room floor, dead. It’s a moment he said he plays over and over again in his head.

Mendoza typically checked in on his parents once or twice a day. But when he called his father that morning, he got no answer. “I called 5,6,7 times,” he said. “So I told my wife I was just gonna go stop by and see what was going on. When I got there, that’s when I saw him on the floor.”

Zeke Mendoza is one of at least 16 San Antonians, and 247 Texans, who lost their lives due to the storm. The former Harlandale ISD trustee was a community man who loved fundraising for the South Side’s kids, Chris Mendoza said. His sons are among a half dozen San Antonio families who filed wrongful death lawsuits against CPS Energy in the storm’s wake. The family is seeking more than $1 million in damages from the utility.

A state in crisis

Zeke Mendoza typically required about four to five hours of dialysis per treatment, which he received at U.S. Renal Care on South Flores Street on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

But the growing power outages caused by the winter storm led to a statewide “dialysis crisis.” Because dialysis requires large amounts of electricity and clean water, both of which were in short supply during and after the winter storm, and because so many clinics had a backlog of patients who missed their appointments during the freeze, many clinics — including U.S. Renal Care — cut patient appointment to two hours per visit.

Zeke Mendoza seemed fine to his family members during his week without the full amount of dialysis he usually received, making his sudden death even more painful, his son said.

In early March, the Mendoza family filed a wrongful death lawsuit alleging “that the negligence of CPS Energy was the cause of [Zeke’s] death” because “CPS Energy did not deliver safe, reliable and efficient electricity to a dialysis clinic where Mr. Mendoza received treatment,” condemning him to “a painful and unnecessary death.”

Esequiel "Zeke" Mendoza with his son Christopher at a Harlandale meeting.
Esequiel “Zeke” Mendoza with his son Christopher at a Harlandale meeting. Credit: Courtesy / Dominguez Family

Because CPS Energy did not warn U.S Renal Care it could not guarantee electricity throughout a severe freeze event, the clinic was left unprepared and severely affected by the winter storm, which in turn severely affected the care patients like Zeke Mendoza received, said Marco Crawford, one of the attorneys who represents the Mendozas.

The other wrongful death lawsuits filed by San Antonio families against CPS Energy in March and April tell similar stories.

On Feb. 17, 2021 Jesus Rodriguez woke up to find his wife, Ann Elizabeth Rodriguez, deceased in their bed. In his suit, Rodriguez alleges his wife’s death was the result of “the extreme cold inside her home, which was caused as a direct result of the power outage.”

Rodriguez’s suit was quickly followed by two more; one by the family of Manuel Riojas, and one by an unnamed San Antonio man who claimed that his mother died because she couldn’t use her electric-powered oxygen machine.

The families of Luis Flores and Florentina Flores — no relation — filed their lawsuits in early April. CPS Energy is also named in two wrongful death lawsuits filed outside of Bexar County.

CPS Energy declined to comment on the lawsuits as they are ongoing litigation.

Where the suits stand

Those suits are all currently “in limbo,” Crawford said. In the Mendoza case, CPS Energy filed a motion to stay the lawsuit, or hold everything in place, he said. The utility has also moved that the family’s case should be brought into multi-district litigation as a class action-type suit.

Most of the wrongful death lawsuits against CPS Energy, ERCOT and gas suppliers have already been consolidated under one multi-district litigation court, Crawford said. But Crawford said he is fighting the consolidation; he hopes to hear this week whether their suit can stand alone.

According to the Mendoza’s objection to CPS Energy’s motion to stay, the utility “denied the allegations in Plaintiffs’ petition and then blamed God and ERCOT in equal
measure for their own negligence.”

Yet several of the wrongful death lawsuits point out that everyone knew the storm was coming — meterologists called it “hundred-year winter storm” event. Gov. Greg Abbott requested a federal emergency declaration on Feb. 13, which was approved the following day.

As the winter approaches CPS is working to complete a number of tasks as part of its winterization process.
Scenes from North Bexar County on February 18, 2021, as a second snowfall hits San Antonio in less than a week. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Yet proper precautions — such as making sure Zeke Mendoza’s dialysis center was marked as critical life-saving infrastructure that must receive power — were not taken, the Mendoza’s objection argues.

CPS Energy sent out text and call warnings to its customers prior to the short freeze earlier this month, Chris Mendoza pointed out in an interview Monday; why weren’t those warnings sent before Winter Storm Uri?

CPS Energy claims that because it is owned by the City of San Antonio, it is a governmental entity, and therefore immune from lawsuits under sovereign immunity, the principle that the government cannot be sued without its consent.

In perhaps an awkward turn, as it is claiming sovereign immunity in the wrongful death cases, CPS Energy is also arguing that ERCOT cannot claim sovereign immunity from the lawsuits filed against it by CPS Energy.

A year of change

It’s been a difficult year for the Mendoza family, who have had to learn how to go on with their lives without their parents; just months after Zeke died, his wife Elizabeth, who had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, passed.

Chris Mendoza said he misses his and his father’s “deep talks,” including his dad’s life advice — which he said was always delivered sternly but lovingly. Eric Mendoza added that he’s sad his three young children, all under the age of 10, will not get to make more memories with their “Popo or grandma.”

Chris still visits his parents’ gravesite a couple of times a month, he said, occasionally with his wife and two teenagers in tow. He plans to do so on the anniversary of his father’s passing next week.

The entities responsible for his father’s death need to be held responsible, Chris Mendoza said. 

The brothers — Chris, Eric and Gabriel — said they are prepared for litigation to possibly take years. They just want to see CPS Energy held accountable, he said.

“We just want them to be better prepared so that someone else doesn’t have to go through the same thing,” Chris Mendoza said.

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.