Opelousas Parish Natural Gas Explosion, Part 3: Assigning Fault

Recently we explored the Third Circuit Court of Appeal’s discussion of the legal cause of a tragic natural gas explosion at the Jones residence in Opelousas Parish. Another of Centerpoint’s assignments of error on appeal, the last that we’ll review from the case, was that the jury incorrectly apportioned fault; the jury assigned 50 percent of the fault to Centerpoint and 50 percent to Carl Jones, Sr. Centerpoint argued that Jones should have been assessed “at least ninety percent of the fault in causing the explosion and fire.” The review of fault allocation by an appellate court is based on the “manifestly erroneous” standard. That is, the court must allow the jury’s apportionment to stand unless it is clearly wrong.

The court began its review of Centerpoint’s argument by focusing on the trial testimony of several of its witnesses. All expressed that the company “clearly recognizes the inherently dangerous nature of its product and has developed numerous measures designed to prevent explosions and fires, such as occurred in this litigation.” One witness, the company’s former Operations Manager for the state of Louisiana, testified that the procedures for
disconnecting gas service are “based on the inherently dangerous nature of” natural gas and are designed to “protect people from their own ignorance.” He further expressed the view that Centerpoint has “an obligation to take every reasonable step to prevent its customers from tampering with its natural gas supply system.” The court equated the risk of “catastrophic consequences” created by Centerpoint’s conduct to Jones’s action in reconnecting the gas supply. Had either party “not breached the applicable duties imposed upon them,” reasoned the court, the accident would not have happened. Nevertheless, when comparing their relative conduct, the court concluded that “Centerpoint Energy’s fault far exceeds that of Mr. Jones.” It considered Centerpoint to be the “superior actor” in the incident who failed–even in light of the gas industry’s general awareness that “customers will attempt to steal gas”–to engage in a “rather simple task” that was designed to “prevent exactly the result which occurred.” Thus, the court could “not find that the jury was manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong in apportioning fault equally” between Centerpoint and Jones.

The jury verdict in this case seems to strike a balance between the need for a utility company to prevent natural gas accidents and its inability to prevent all attempts at gas theft by customers. In fact, the court suggested that Centerpoint’s fault was actually greater than Jones’s, though it could not find error on the jury’s part that would allow it substitute its own judgment and increase its share of the fault. Undoubtedly, the jury would have reached a different result if Centerpoint had followed its own procedure in shutting off and securing the gas line and Jones had nevertheless managed to turn the valve back on. Ultimately in the case, the court rejected all of Centerpoint’s assignments of error and affirmed the jury’s verdict in its entirety.

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.