Madison - St. Clair Record

Friday, April 3, 2020

Request for punitive damages allowed in suit against AmeriGas; Leaking propane allegedly caused rental property explosion

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Jan 12, 2018

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Madison County Circuit Judge Andreas Matoesian granted State Farm’s motion to request punitive damages against a propane company after leaking gas caused an explosion at a rental property, which allegedly “knocked a home from its foundation and nearly killed an entire family.”

State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, as subrogee of Doris King, filed the lawsuit against AmeriGas Propone Inc., a Pennsylvania corporation, on Oct. 20.

According to the complaint, King was the owner of a rental property located at 805 Troy Street in Collinsville. Lee and Cheryl Irwin entered into a lease agreement with King to rent the residence on Sept. 22, 2014. Prior to moving in, the Irwins allegedly entered into an agreement with AmeriGas to provide propane gas and related services to the property through a propane tank located in the rear of the residence and gas service lines located throughout the residence.

The propane tank provided propane to various gas appliances within the home, including the water heater located in the basement.

State Farm alleges that at approximately 2 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2014, AmeriGas employee Chad Outland partially filled the propane tank with 100 gallons of liquid propane. After failing to light the water heater, Outland “red tagged” the appliance, indicating the appliance should not be used until maintenance had been performed.

Outland allegedly informed the Irwins that he was unable to light the water heater, but he would allow propane to enter the home so that the gas stove could be used. He then left the property around 3 p.m.

Shortly after Outland left, “fugitive propane gas” leaked into the home. When Lee Irwin went into the basement and attempted to light the water heater at approximately 6 p.m., the fugitive gas suddenly ignited, causing an explosion and fire.

As a result, the property was destroyed and State Farm paid roughly $203,843 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed property belonging to King.

State Farm filed a motion to add a request for punitive damages against AmeriGas Propane on Dec. 22 through attorney Michael Murphy of Freeark Harvey & Mendillo in Belleville.

“The willful and wanton standard for punitive damages covers a wide variety of behavior, but the case at bar deals strictly with a flagrant and utterly egregious example of gross negligence and total disregard for the AmeriGas safety policy and procedures set in place to protect workers and customers,” the motion states.

“In fact, AmeriGas has admitted repeatedly that had one of its employees, Chad Outland, followed the AmeriGas safety policy and procedures and disconnected gas service at the tank, this explosion would not have occurred,” it continues.

State Farm alleges Outland was grossly negligent and “nearly cost a family their lives.” The plaintiff claims he failed to “red tag” the gas water heater, failed to acquire the plaintiff’s signature on the alleged red tag, failed to properly disconnect and isolate the dangerous condition from the gas system, failed to properly report the safety hazard to management immediately after its discovery, failed to isolate the gas water heater from the rest of the gas system after he was unable to get it lit and failed to shut the gas system off completely at the tank after failing to properly isolate the dangerous appliance.

“AmeriGas has not just admitted to policy violations through deposition testimony, their internal company investigation admits the sole cause of the accident was failed policies and procedures,” the motion states.

Further, State Farm argues that the incident, that “knocked a home from its foundation, and nearly killed an entire family wasn’t even worth a verbal reprimand to the employee that caused it all.”

The plaintiff alleges AmeriGas failed to take corrective action against Outland and made sure to cover up their negligence by sending a letter to the Irwins the next day. The letter allegedly warned the Irwins of a dangerous condition with their gas water heater.

District Manager Cindy Wolf sent a warning letter to a home that had already exploded.

State Farm claims Wolf was even at the scene of the explosion and watched it crumble while on fire.

“The letter warning the Irwins to cease using their appliances was insensitive and completely useless considering they were fighting for their lives in Mercy Hospital, and their entire house was consumed in char and smoke,” the motion states.

State Farm also filed a motion to consolidate on Dec. 22, seeking to consolidate the action with a lawsuit Lee and Cheryl Irwin previously filed in 2015 against AmeriGas Propane and King (15-L-183) arising out of the same explosion and fire.

A jury trial in the 2015 case had previously been set for Jan. 22 but was continued to an unknown date after the Irwins sought a continuance.

In their motion to continue, they argue that their counsel, Thomas Keefe Jr. of Keefe Keefe & Unsell PC in Belleville, only recently got involved in the case and needed more time to “get up to speed.”

AmeriGas answered the complaint on Dec. 8 through attorney William Knapp of Knapp Ohl & Green in Edwardsville, denying liability and asserting 16 affirmative defenses.

The defendant argues that the claims against it are barred by the statute of limitations and that the alleged damages were not the result of any contributory negligence or culpable conduct of AmeriGas.

AmeriGas further argues that the alleged damages or loss were the direct result of the negligence of others, over whom the defendant exercised no right of control, and that the alleged injuries and damages were the result of an “independent, unforeseeable, superseding or intervening” cause.

State Farm filed a reply on Dec. 19, denying each and every affirmative defense.

Madison County Circuit Court case number 17-L-1454

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Organizations in this Story

Knapp, Ohl and GreenFreeark, Harvey and MendilloKeefe Keefe and Unsell PC