Gas explosions can be among the most terrifying and ruinous incidents in a homeowner’s life, leading to extensive property damage, injuries, and even death. Investigating the cause of the explosion is crucial for assigning liability and obtaining a complete recovery. Quite frequently, either the gas company providing natural gas, or a defective product that uses gas, such as a gas stove or gas hot water heater, is to blame. Under both scenarios, an injured party can obtain recovery for his or her injuries, property damage, pain and suffering, lost compensation, and future medical costs, among other consequential and actual damages flowing from the accident.
If a homeowner believes that the gas company may be at fault for his or her injuries, the homeowner must pursue a claim under a theory of negligence: essentially, that the gas company was negligent in providing or maintaining natural gas services. To prove negligence, an injured party must show that the gas company had a duty, that the company or its agent violated this duty, that a violation of this duty lead to the injuries suffered, and that the injuries suffered were physical, as opposed to solely emotional or mental.
In general, gas companies have a duty to maintain gas lines in working and safe conditions, to inspect gas lines for damages and repair when necessary, and to provide gas to its costumers at reasonable pressures and with appropriate consistency and quality. If a homeowner alleges, for example, that the gas explosion in her home was caused because of a sudden increase in gas pressure, the homeowner will argue that the gas company was under a duty to provide gas at a reasonable pressure and, because the gas company violated this duty, an explosion at her home occurred, causing physical injury to herself and damage to her property.
Gas explosions and the negligence lawsuits that follow are, unfortunately, quite common. For example, in 2010, a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, causing fatalities, injuries, and massive property damage. The utility company that supplied gas services, Pacific Gas & Electric, was sued for negligence. Among other theories, the injured parties alleged that PG&E failed to properly maintain the gas pipeline that exploded, failed to inspect the pipeline, and failed to repair faulty welding present in the pipeline. PG&E ultimately paid millions of dollars to injured parties who sued under these theories, and hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal fines.
Gas companies are strictly regulated under California and federal law. If a gas company is found to be in violation of any of these laws, this violation itself can constitute “negligence per se.” In a negligence per se action, the at-fault party—such as the gas company—is presumed to be negligent, unless it is able to prove otherwise. This therefore shifts the normal burden of proof away from the injured party (who must otherwise prove that the gas company was negligent), to the gas company, who now show how it did not violate the law as alleged, or how the law was not intended to protect against the injury suffered. As an example of how a violation of law might not result in a successful negligence per se action: if the gas company charged more money than legally permitted, and, later, a gas explosion occurred, the gas company would argue that the law regulating the price consumers pay for gas was not intended as a safety measure and therefore, despite the violation, the company is not presumed to be negligent, an a negligence per se action is not appropriate.
Separately, an individual may be injured in a gas explosion due to a defective product, even if the gas utility company is not at fault. For example, a defective gas stove, gas hot water heater, or gas clothes dryer. In these cases, the injured party will pursue a product liability claim. In California, any individual or entity involved in entering a defective product into the so-called “stream of commerce” anywhere at any time could potentially be found either partially or entirely at fault for the accident stemming from the product. This includes, for example, the designer, manufacturer, shipper, reseller, installer, maintenance company, and so on. See Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, 377 P.2d 897 (Cal. 1963).
In California, most product liability cases are pursued under a theory of strict liability. This means that an injured party need only show that the product was defective in order to obtain a full recovery. Importantly, an injured party does not need to show negligence in order to recover for his or her injuries. Under a strict liability theory, a product could contain a manufacturing defect, could be defectively designed, or it may not have included sufficient instructions or warnings of potential safety hazards.
In the case of a gas clothes dryer that exploded in a gas explosion, an injured party might argue that the dryer was defectively designed. For example, the injured individual might argue that the piping used to move gas within the dryer developed leaks after use due to the design of the piping, leading to an explosion. The injured party might separately, or in addition, argue that, even if the dryer was correctly designed, it was manufactured in a way that deviated from its design leading to the explosion. For example, the dryer was manufactured without a relief valve, even though this was called for in the design, and the lack of the valve lead to the explosion. Finally, the injured party might argue that the dryer lacked sufficient instructions or warnings. For example, if the dryer requires a specific valve to be fitted to the gas supply line prior to installation by the installer, but does not specify this in the instructions, and the installer failed to use the specific valve which led to an explosion, this lack of instructions would likely lead to a successful strict liability action for a defective product.
It is important to note that, as stated, any individual or entity in downstream in the stream of commerce may be liable for the gas explosion. For example, if the gas dryer was defectively designed, the company or individual that designed the dyer, the manufacturer, shipping company, reseller, installer, and so on, would all be jointly liable for the damages caused by the explosion. In such circumstances, skilled attorneys will often simultaneously pursue claims against many parties in an effort to obtain a full recovery.
Because gas explosions can result in tremendous property damage, injuries, and death, it is extremely important to identify the cause of the explosion, and consult with an attorney familiar with these catastrophic accidents to obtain the maximum fair compensation.
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