West Feliciana Parish Pipeline Explosion Illustrates the Required Elements of a Negligence Case

On November 25, 1984, a natural gas pipeline running through a field in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana exploded, causing the loss of lives and substantial property damage. The pipeline was owned by the Texas Eastern Company, but the land over which the pipeline ran was owned by Mary Lou Trawick Winters. Nearly thirty years prior to the incident, Mrs. Winters had agreed to provide Texas Eastern an easement to “construct, lay, maintain, operate, alter, repair, remove, change the size of, and replace pipe lines” on the property. Dupree v. Texas Eastern Corp., 639 F. Supp. 463, 464 (M.D. La. 1986).

Relatives of the parties injured in the blast filed suit and named Ms. Winters as a defendant because of her ownership of the land over which Texas Eastern’s pipeline was run. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana first examined the state laws related to the granting of easements, and noted that “there are literally thousands of miles of underground natural gas … pipelines in Louisiana. It is a rare southwest Louisiana rice field that does not have at least one pipeline crossing it–many have multiple pipelines.” The court also observed that under federal law, natural gas pipeline companies are permitted to expropriate property needed for running the lines. In other words, landowners can be required to grant easements on their property for the installation of pipelines so long as the gas company compensates them based on the fair market value of the easements.

Although the court noted that pipeline easements are typically established by “voluntary” agreements between the pipeline companies and the landowners, it concluded that as a practical matter landowners are in no position to decline the request to grant an easement when “asked.” Revealing clear sympathy the position of such landowners, the court concluded, “the chances of the courts of Louisiana holding a landowner liable for activities of the [gas company] over which the landowner had no control, are akin to those of the proverbial snowball in the warm place.”

Nevertheless, the court analyzed whether under the facts of this case Mrs. Winters could be found liable under a negligence theory. To do so under Louisiana law, it would be required to “determine whether the wrongful condition [the explosion] was a cause of the harm [personal injury and property damage] and whether the landowner breached a legal duty imposed to protect against the particular risk involved.” Applying this logic, the court concluded that there was no doubt that the pipeline exploded, causing serious harm; however, the plaintiff would still have “the burden of proving that the property which caused the damage, in this case the pipeline, was in the custody of the defendant.”

The court thus determined that “the pipeline was not in the custody of Mrs. Winters.” Because Mrs. Winters had granted Texas Eastern the easement, she had no control or authority over the pipeline on her property:

She did not own the pipeline, and therefore had no duty (and no authority) to inspect, maintain, or perform any other acts with reference to the pipeline, the omission of which, or the substandard performance of which acts might subject her to liability, nor did she have any authority to interfere with Texas Eastern’s use of the [easement].

Accordingly, the court declared that there was “no possibility of negligence” on the part of Mrs. Winters, and dismissed the claims against her.

While negligence claims do exist that punish a property owner for an injury that takes place on their land, it is important to distinguish simple accidents that occur on a location and accidents occur because of the condition of the location. As the case above illustrates, the law does protect people from being held culpable for all circumstances and limits it to the areas in which the owner should have known the injury could occur. This includes examples like overgrown trees, dangerous excavation/holes, pools, etc.

The idea of negligence for an injury is a complex one and requires careful legal analysis to determine culpability.

If you have been injured due to someone else’s fault, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 and speak to an attorney who understands the law and who can help you get the recovery you deserve from the negligent party.

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