Every year in the United States, natural gas explosions cause an average of 17 deaths, 68 injuries, and $133 million in property damage, according to a 2014 study published by the American Chemical Society. What is a gas company’s liability for personal injury claims brought by explosion victims? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this question.
Westbrook v. Atlanta Gas Light Company
This case arose from a 2010 natural gas explosion in Atlanta. The plaintiffs were a man and woman injured in the explosion. The male plaintiff had rented a detached apartment on a residential property. Prior to the plaintiff moving in, the owner contacted the local gas company to turn the gas on in the apartment.
Approximately two weeks before the explosion, a gas company field representative arrived at the property. The owner was not home, but the girlfriend of the owner’s stepson was there to let the representative in. The representative did not perform any work in the apartment. He later testified that he was unaware there was an a detached unit, but instead checked the gas lines inside the main home, where he discovered a leak.
Unable to find the exact source of the leak, the representative shut off and locked the gas meter and left a “warning card” with the stepson’s girlfriend. The card said there was a leak that needed to be repaired by a “qualified agency or person” before any gas appliances could be turned on. The representative testified he also discussed the “dangerous condition” with the girlfriend, but she said she could not recall such a conversation.
The girlfriend relayed the message to the owner that someone else would have to come in and turn the gas on. The owner asked a friend of his, a handyman, to do so. The gas leak had still not been fixed.
The day the male plaintiff moved in, he and the other plaintiff noticed an “old” smell in the apartment. He lit incense to get rid of the smell. When he did so, there was a gas explosion. Both plaintiffs suffered injuries due to the explosion and subsequent fire.
The plaintiffs sued the gas company, alleging its negligence caused the explosion. They claimed the company failed to properly train and supervise its representative, who did not properly lock the gas meter or “sufficiently warn them” or the landlord about the “dangerous nature of the gas leak.”
A judge granted the gas company’s motion for summary judgment. The judge found the plaintiffs could not prove a direct causal link between the representative’s alleged negligence and the explosion, since the handyman hired by the owner actually turned the gas back on. The judge also said the warning card the representative gave to the stepson’s girlfriend constituted “adequate notice” to the plaintiffs and the landlord.
The plaintiffs appealed, but the Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge’s decision. As the appeals court viewed the case, the gas company properly warned the landlord–through the card and the stepson’s girlfriend–that there was a dangerous gas leak. “He simply did not heed that warning,” the Court observed, and allowed his under-qualified handyman to reactivate the gas without first repairing the leak. The “tragic result” for the plaintiffs could therefore not be attributed to any negligence on the part of the gas company.