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Gloucester County

The 34-year-old male plaintiff contended that as a result of the failure of the defendant local gas company to properly repair and replace portions of the subterranean gas distribution line when some 12 leaks were encountered between ________ and ________, gas escaped from the pipe and gas traveled into the basement. A severe natural gas explosion occurred and the plaintiff, who was in the main floor living room of the single family home which he had purchased from a non-party two weeks earlier, suffered second and third degree burns over 65% of his body. The plaintiff, who had covered his face upon the explosion, did not suffer significant facial burns. The plaintiff maintained that he suffered severe burns to the ears, neck, right arm, the backs of both hands and some lesser burns to the torso. The plaintiff, who is single, contended that his social and dating life has suffered extensively. The plaintiff, who worked six months a year in the pool construction industry, contended that he is permanently unemployable. The plaintiff contended that the defendant had acted recklessly in failing to follow federal regulations which would have required replacement of this portion of the pipe before the accident occurred and acted recklessly in ignoring frequent complaints of the odor of gas by the neighbors over a long term period. The plaintiff demanded punitive damages.

The evidence disclosed that almost immediately upon the explosion, neighbors rushed to his aid and covered him with snow, preventing severe inhalation injuries to the lungs which are often fatal. There were ten inches of snow on the ground at the time of the explosion.

The underground pipe was not damaged in the explosion. The plaintiff established that between ________ and ________, some 12 natural gas leaks were reported and attended to by the defendant. The proofs adduced by the plaintiff’s engineering and materials experts reflected that the pipe was heavily corroded from wetness and stray electrical currents and that it could not withstand the force of a pencil. The plaintiff also contended that after a prior leak in ________, which occurred some ten feet away from the subject leak, the defendant had used a rubber sealer which was held in place with half moon clamps which prevented further corrosion from occurring at this point. The plaintiff contended that at the time of the inspection after the subject incident, this portion could not withstand the force of a pencil as well and that this evidence reflected that the condition was the same as in ________.

The plaintiff maintained that the leak was caused by corrosion and that the corrosion was in turn caused by wetness in the soil and a phenomenon involving stray electrical current. The plaintiff’s evidence reflected that although the causes are unknown, underground gas pipes are known to be subject to such occurrences relatively frequently. The plaintiff contended that electrical devices are available to either absorb or repel such current, avoiding corrosion from this source, but that the defendant did not have such devices either on hand or on order.

The defendant denied that it violated any standards or regulations. The plaintiff countered that applicable federal regulations dictated that the pipe be replaced if it falls below "30% wall strength." The plaintiff maintained that it fell well below this standard, that the defendant had knowledge of this fact and that it was clear that in failing to follow such regulations and in view of the known hazards, the defendant’s conduct was reckless, warranting punitive damages. The plaintiff produced evidence that neighbors had made frequent complaints regarding the odor of gas for approximately ten years and the plaintiff, who just purchased the house, maintained that he was not so advised. The plaintiff contended that the failure to correct the difficulties in the face of these complaints also evidenced conduct that warranted punitive damages.

The explosion occurred during a very cold period in Jan., ________.

The plaintiff maintained that the gas could not escape through the ground because the ground was frozen solid. The plaintiff maintained that when the gas leaked from the pipe which was contracted because of the cold temperatures, the gas traveled along the pipe and into the plaintiff’s basement. The plaintiff maintained that when he opened the front door in the living room, the thermostat was activated, igniting the furnace, causing the explosion. The plaintiff also contended that although he had also lit a cigarette at about this time, he could not detect the odor of gas because he had a bad cold at the time and the plaintiff submitted an affidavit to that effect.

The evidence disclosed that the duty to odorize the gas rests with the interstate gas company and not the defendant local distributor. The interstate company was named as a defendant, but dismissed upon presentation of documentary evidence that this gas had, in fact, been odorized. The plaintiff had moved for summary judgment on liability. The Court, noting that the defendant had failed to follow mandatory federal regulations, granted the plaintiff’s motion. The Court also held that the act of lighting a cigarette was innocuous and would not be sufficient in this case to create an issue as to comparative negligence.

The plaintiff related that he covered his face as the explosion occurred and that he did not suffer significant facial scarring or lung burns which would often be fatal. The plaintiff maintained that his ears, neck, right arm and the back of both hands were severely burned. The plaintiff underwent very painful debridements during a hospitalization at the Crozier-Chester Burn Center for three weeks. He then was transferred to intensive care for two weeks and spent one week on the general floor before being discharged.

The plaintiff contended that the pain during the initial three months of the recuperation was agonizing and the plaintiff would have produced a videotape depicting the plaintiffs’ brother helping the plaintiff change bandages in a procedure that was extremely painful. The plaintiff maintained that he suffered severe contractions to the back of the hands and could not flex the back of either hand. The plaintiff has regained approximately 50% of the flexion on the right dominant hand and 75% on the left. The plaintiff continues to wear a pressure garment to improve circulation on the right hand and to prevent deterioration and promote healing.

The plaintiff contended that the scarring, which is partially hypertrophic in nature, is very significant and that the social life of this unmarried plaintiff has virtually come to an end.

The plaintiff, who had held a job placing concrete in pools, contended that his talents and inclinations gear him towards physical labor and that he is will permanently unable to work.

The plaintiff was earning $________ per year. The plaintiff has undergone a number of plastic surgical revisions to improve the scarring and more are contemplated.

The case settled prior to the Court’s ruling on the issue of whether punitive damages would be submitted to the jury for $3.7 million cash and a structure with a present value of $________ which is payable over 30 years.

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