Opelousas Parish Natural Gas Explosion, Part 1: Exploring the Utility Company’s Duty

On May 7, 2003, Centerpoint Energy disconnected the natural gas service at the house of Carl Jones, Sr. and his family because they were past due on an outstanding balance. A short time later, Jones and his son removed the gas stove from the kitchen and replaced it with an electric model. Unfortunately, Jones forgot to cap the gas line before installing the new stove. Late in the evening of June 15, 2004, after having been without a functioning water heater since the disconnection, Jones reconnected the gas line. He did so because he was expecting guests the following day and wished to have a supply of hot water that did not require stove-top heating. To make the reconnection, Jones used a wrench to snap off the red plastic locking device that the Centerpoint technician had installed on the line when he closed the valve. Unable to re-light his water heater, Jones assumed no gas was flowing and went to bed. By morning, the house was filled with gas, and as the family arose several large fireballs erupted. Jones, his wife, and their four children were severely injured in the explosion. Jones sued Centerpoint seeking to recover for his and his family’s injuries. A trial was held in July, 2010. After the judge denied Centerpoint’s motion for a directed verdict, a jury apportioned half of the fault to Centerpoint and half to Jones and awarded substantial sums to Jones’s family members for their injuries. Centerpoint appealed, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erred in permitting the case to go to the jury at all. In Centerpoint’s view, its duty to reasonably disconnect gas service for non-payment did not extend to protecting Jones against the explosion caused “by [his] subsequent negligent, intentional, criminal and then grossly negligent conduct.”

An appeal of a trial court’s denial of a motion for a directed verdict requires the appellate court’s de novo review because such a motion can be granted “only if the facts and inferences are so overwhelmingly in favor of the moving party that the court finds that reasonable men could not arrive at a contrary verdict.” The Third Circuit began its analysis by noting that “[t]o prevail in their personal injury suit, the plaintiffs bore the burden of establishing that Centerpoint Energy was at fault in causing the accident, using a duty-risk analysis.” Centerpoint argued that Jones failed to meet this burden, in part, because he could not establish that the utility did not conform to the appropriate standard of care when shutting off the gas supply. The court found two sources for the scope of duty imputed to Centerpoint. First, Louisiana case law takes the position that it is

“common knowledge … that natural gas, being highly flammable and explosive in nature, is an inherently dangerous instrumentality. Those who handle and distribute it are charged with that degree of care commensurate with its dangerous character for the protection of the public from any foreseeable injury.” Giordano v. Rheem Manufacturing Co..

In addition, the Code of Federal Regulations provides for three options for “acceptable compliance” when disconnecting natural gas service: (1) the valve that is closed to prevent the flow of gas to the customer must be securely locked; (2) a mechanical device or fitting that will prevent the flow of gas must be installed in the service line or in the meter; or (3) the customer’s piping must be physically disconnected
from the gas supply and the open pipe ends sealed. 49 C.F.R. 192.727(d). In this case, the Centerpoint technician installed an easily circumvented, red plastic locking device on the valve, but, in contravention to Centerpoint’s own clear policy, did not install a “blind plate” within the meter that would have blocked the flow of gas even if the valve were to be re-opened. The court, after reviewing extensive expert witness testimony concerning the industry standards for preventing unauthorized tampering with a shut-off gas line, concluded: “reasonable men could find that installing the plastic locking device was not sufficient to comply with the standard of care, that Centerpoint Energy’s technician did not properly install a blind plate on the meter, and, therefore, Centerpoint Energy did not
comply with the applicable standard of care.” Thus, the court determined that the jury’s verdict, so far as it pertained to the element of Centerpoint’s duty, was supported.

In a subsequent post, we will revisit this case to review the court’s analysis of Centerpoint’s argument concerning the causation element of the duty-risk analysis.

In the mean time, if you have been injured due to someone else’s negligence, call the Berniard Law Firm at 1-866-574-8005 and speak with a lawyer who can help.