Reprinted with permission of the APGA
I’ve served as a consultant to attorneys in quite a few lawsuits in which natural gas is alleged to have caused damages ranging from multiple deaths from a building explosion to mental anguish caused by “occasional whiffs” of gas odor in another. Unfortunately, there seems to be no argument too far-fetched that a plaintiff won’t involve the utility in the case.
If the utility was called about gas odors before the accident occurred—perhaps even weeks or months beforehand—the utility’s procedures for responding to an odor call are commonly challenged. Did the person answering the call ask the right questions and did they give the correct advice about what the caller should do? Did the first utility employee at the scene check for gas migration into nearby buildings and evacuate occupants or did they go to work to fix the leak? Regulations and industry practices say to protect people and property first, which usually means checking nearby buildings first. In several cases, however, the fire department was already on the scene and instructed the utility crew to stop the leak rather than check buildings for gas. Under the National Incident Command System, all on-scene personnel, including utility employees, are under the fire department’s command. That raises the duty of the utility personnel to advise the Incident Commander of the proper response and the adequacy of the utility’s public awareness outreach to educate emergency responders on gas leak response.
If the location of the source of the suspected gas odor is not obvious when the utility crew arrives on scene, the utility’s procedures for investigating an odor call are critical. Most procedures instruct the utility employees to locate the caller and gather information about where the odor was smelled and to begin investigating in the specified area. Hopefully that person will be helpful, but in one case in which I was involved, the caller pointed the utility crew to a location several blocks away from where—post-accident—a gas leak was found. His construction project was behind schedule and it is possible that he didn’t want the job shut down while the utility searched for a leak.
For as long as I have been in the gas industry, utility managers have told me that over half of the odor calls turn out to be something other than a gas leak, which is good since it is a sign that the public knows gas has an odd odor and to call if there is any question it might be gas. But do the utility’s training and procedures for leak investigation provide clear instructions on how to conduct the investigation and when to stop looking? A typical procedure might call for checking the building where the odor was detected and one or two buildings in all directions around it, barholing near mains and services in front of these buildings and testing sewer and other openings. No written procedure can ever address every contingency, so the decision must rely on the training and experience of the utility personnel. It is certain that the leak investigation procedures, training and qualification records will be challenged.
When utility personnel enter a building, further potential liability is opened. I recently consulted on a gas fire in one unit of a 600-unit apartment complex. The apartment management had replaced gas-fired heaters in three units with electric heaters, closed the valve but didn’t cap the gas line as required by building codes. Post-accident investigation found that the gas valve, which was at floor level under the new electric heater, was partially open, possibly because it was accidentally bumped. The utility had been called to the building 16 times in the three years between the heater replacement and the fire, but never from any of the three units with uncapped gas lines. In five of these calls, leaks on the apartment’s gas piping or appliances were found and either fixed or red-tagged. In 11 of those calls, there were no odors nor any detectible levels of flammable gas found. The plaintiff claimed that proved the utility was negligent for finding only five of 16 gas leaks. One of the odor calls was for a hallway just one floor above a unit with an uncapped gas line, not the unit where the fire occurred, however.
The plaintiff criticized that the utility checked neighboring apartments, but not the floors above and below.The plaintiff cited the Gas Piping Technology Guide, which says to “attempt to locate and identify all gas lines associated with the building to their respective points of termination or equipment connection.” I’m on the committee that writes that guide and it clearly wasn’t intended for a 600-unit apartment building, but a jury may not understand that. Utility procedures need to be carefully written, too, as procedures are always requested by plaintiffs in gas accident cases. When reviewing written procedures, it is important to make sure instructions are clear and won’t be taken out of context to imply the utility isn’t taking appropriate care.
Some cases border on the absurd, like the woman who lost all interest in socializing and work after getting occasional, faint whiffs of a gas odor in her kitchen. When asked during her deposition if she had “seen anyone with M.D. after their name since these health problems began,” she answered no. Or there was the man whose heirs sued the utility after he set himself on fire while smoking crack because his companion thought she smelled gas. Unfortunately, it seems there is no way to avoid getting sued, but good procedures and good training can make it easier to defend.