Opelousas Parish Natural Gas Explosion, Part 2: Determining Causation

In our prior post, we observed the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s finding that the jury correctly held that Centerpoint Energy failed to meet its duty of properly securing the natural gas line and valve when it disconnected service at the Jones residence in Opelousas Parish. Establishing the duty owed by Centerpoint was one of several elements of the duty-risk analysis that Jones was required to establish in order to prevail. Another element that we will now consider is that of causation. Centerpoint argued that its failure to properly shut off and secure the gas supply was not the legal cause of the injuries sustained by the Jones family. Instead, in Centerpoint’s view, Jones’s “reconnection of the gas service constituted intervening conduct that was not only grossly negligent, intentional, and criminal, but also not foreseeable.” Under Louisiana law, an intervening act will relieve the original tortfeasor of liability if it
“superseded the original negligence and alone produced the injury.” Adams v. Rhodia, Inc. However, if the intervening act is foreseeable to the original tortfeasor, it is considered to be “within the scope of the original tortfeasor’s negligence.” In short, Centerpoint argued it could not possibly have foreseen Jones’s attempt to reconnect his gas line and, therefore, its failure to properly secure the line was irrelevant once Jones acted to steal the gas.

The court, however, found that Centerpoint’s position was “defeated” by the testimony of its own wtinesses. One employee, the company’s Operations Supervisor, explained that the security mechanisms were necessary because it was “common sense that people will try to steal natural gas after their supply has been cut off.” Another, Centerpoint’s former Operations Manager for Louisiana, stated that the locking mechanisms were required because “people do not always understand the dangers associated with natural gas.” Also, an expert in the field of natural gas operations testified that Centerpoint should have “no illusions” about the potential for people to steal natural gas. The court found that “Jones’s actions in leaving an uncapped gas line open in the house, breaking the plastic locking device and stealing natural gas, and negligently leaving the natural gas running into the house all night, are exactly the unsafe acts that Centerpoint Energy’s duty to properly terminate service is designed to prevent.” Thus, it concluded, the jury’s finding that Jones’s conduct was foreseeable was well supported, and it correctly determined that Centerpoint could not rely on Jones’s intervening criminal act to relieve it of all responsibility for the explosion.

In a third and final post, we will revisit this case to review Centerpoint’s argument on appeal that the jury erred in its apportionment of fault between it and Jones.

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.