Propane Gas Explosion

Injuries
Severe explosion injuries – second and third degree burns over 80% of body, 97 minutes of conscience pain and suffering. Punitive damages.
Tried before Judge or Jury
Settled at mediation
Recovery
$7,500,000
Special Damages
$63,000
Plaintiffs’
Counsel
Marc L. Breakstone
Boston, Massachusetts
Mediator
Paul Finn
Commonwealth Mediation
Other Useful
Information
On July 30, 2010, plaintiff’s decedent, a 48-year-old single electrician was working in the basement of a newly constructed duplex when the house exploded due to a propane leak. Decedent was trapped under burning debris for 97 minutes with severe burns over 80% of his body and major crush injuries to his head and chest. Four firefighters, who toiled to rescue him testified at depositions regarding his awareness of his dire situation. He begged firefighters to not leave him there to die. He cried out in agony as fires burned his legs. He asked firefighters to say good-bye to his fiancé and family members. He struggled to keep his head above the flooding basement water to avoid drowning. He was eventually removed alive and awake from the burning debris and transported by med flight to a Boston hospital where he died 6 hours later.

Investigation into the cause of the explosion revealed that a loose fitting on a pipe leading into the furnace allowed propane to leak into the basement. Plaintiff’s decedent had worked in the basement for almost 4 hours that morning without detecting the odor of propane. Several other workers had walked in and out of the basement without detecting an odor. Testing of gas samples 2 weeks post-explosion revealed that the chemical odorant which had been added to the propane to give it its distinctive “rotten eggs” odor, had faded from the gas. This phenomenon known as “odorant fade” has been well known in the propane industry since the 1950’s. It occurs when the chemical odorant interacts with rust or moisture on the inside of newly installed propane storage tanks. Precautions to avoid odor fade were stated on the propane storage tank warning label.

Plaintiff filed suit against the propane marketer and the plumbing company responsible for the leak. The theory against the propane company was that it violated the storage tank manufacturer’s warnings about filling the newly installed tank to its maximum liquid level to avoid the problem of odor and fade by filling the tank to only 20% capacity 3 months before the propane explosion. Plaintiff claimed the defendant knew or should have known that this would greatly increase the risk of odor fade which would endanger workers at the site in the event of a gas leak which would become undetectable. Plaintiff sued the plumbing subcontractor for failing to tighten the union which caused the leak to occur.

Plaintiff also brought a claim for gross negligence and punitive damages based on the reckless disregard shown by the defendant propane company for industry safety standards and for the safety warnings on the tank regarding preventing odor fade.

Shortly after Plaintiff filed suit, suits were filed by other injury and subrogation plaintiffs. All seven cases were consolidated for discovery. The court entered a scheduling order that required completion of discovery within a relatively short time frame. Over the next year, counsel for the eleven parties in the case took 47 depositions, most of which lasted all day.

Late in discovery, Plaintiff learned that the propane company had sold its assets for $68,000,000.00 to a publicly traded energy company in order to avoid exposure for punitive damages. Plaintiff obtained a temporary restraining order, then an injunction to prevent defendant from dissipating the cash proceeds of the asset sale until the conclusion of the case.

Plaintiff, along with two other seriously injured plaintiffs, agreed to mediate the case with Paul Finn of Commonwealth Mediation. The three plaintiffs settled the case in a global settlement. Plaintiff’s portion of the settlement was $7,500,000.

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