On October 25, 2017, the Houston personal injury lawyers of Morrow & Sheppard LLP won a unanimous jury verdict in a personal injury home explosion case in Webb County, Texas. The 12-person jury held defendants CenterPoint Energy and Westwind Homes must pay a judgment that, with interest and costs, could exceed $8 million.
The jury found the home explosion was caused by the failure to plug, seal, and safely configure a gas valve in the utility room. The laws in most every jurisdiction require all gas valves in homes to be plugged and sealed if they are not connected to an appliance.
A properly plugged valve looks like this:
The day of the explosion, the valve in the home looked like this:
On the day of the explosion, the valve was inadvertently opened, causing a gas leak that was ignited when our client moved the power cord for an electric dryer in the utility room. If the valve had been plugged and sealed, it would have been impossible for the valve to leak.
The jury found CenterPoint liable for failing to ensure the valve was plugged and sealed when it turned on gas to the home. Westwind Homes was found liable for failing to plug, seal, and safely configure the valve when Westwind built and sold the home.
In discovery, CenterPoint produced a record indicating its technician plugged the valve when the company turned gas on to the home. Refusing to take the record at face value, Morrow & Sheppard LLP unearthed the technician’s electronic “action log” that tracked his movements the day he supposedly performed the work. The action log showed the technician was only at the home four minutes the day he supposedly plugged the valve, which was not enough time to do the work. The technician admitted he did not remember doing the work. And Morrow & Sheppard LLP retained expert metallurgists who performed tests that confirmed the valve was never plugged.
In a shocking and unexpected development, Morrow & Sheppard LLP uncovered evidence that CenterPoint and/or Westwind had failed to plug valves in other Webb County homes.
Worse, Morrow & Sheppard LLP learned that until our lawsuit was filed, CenterPoint’s corporate policy in the Laredo area was to not use thread sealant even when its technicians do plug valves. Meanwhile, in CenterPoint’s corporate headquarters of Houston, the company has long been instructing technicians use thread sealant to plug valves gas-tight. The Court instructed the jury that the law requires thread sealant to be used.
It is not currently known how many homes in south Texas have either no plugs, or no thread sealant. CenterPoint has evidently done nothing to investigate the issue, or warn customers.
Jury Requests Public Safety Notice
CenterPoint’s hired expert, Sammy Russo, testified that CenterPoint only plugs valves as a “courtesy.” CenterPoint claims gas companies have no duty to make sure customers’ homes are safely plugged when they turn on gas.
The jury disagreed. During its deliberations, the jury made the following request:
Unfortunately, in a civil case, the Court has no authority to require CenterPoint to issue such a warning, or to order CenterPoint to repair the numerous valves in south Texas that evidently remain either unplugged, or plugged without sealant.
CenterPoint has made no efforts on its own to warn or fix the problem. The Texas Railroad Commission has not yet ordered them to do so. Hopefully that will change.
At trial, CenterPoint and Westwind insinuated someone had removed a plug. They also blamed our client for not paying attention, not smelling the gas, and not hearing a hissing noise which they claimed would have emanated from the open valve. CenterPoint constructed in the courtroom an elaborate gas valve contraption to show the noise. The demonstration failed, showing instead that valves do not make noise at certain open positions.
The jury found Westwind 60 percent responsible for the explosion. Under Texas law, because it was found more than 50 percent responsible, Westwind is liable for the full judgment.
The jury found CenterPoint 34 percent responsible.
Westwind’s plumber who installed the valve, Armando Aguilar & Son Contractor, was found 6 percent responsible. Aguilar settled for $500,000 before trial began.
Our client was found zero percent responsible.
Our client suffered second-degree burns and other physical injuries in the explosion. Both he and his wife, who was in the home with their 2-year-old granddaughter at the time, have been diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The jury compensated our injured client $102,312.08 for past medical expenses, $400,000 for expected future medical expenses, $244,500 for past physical impairment, $1,200,000 for future physical impairment, $2,000,000 for past pain and suffering, $120,000 for future pain and suffering, $1,000,000 for past mental anguish, $400,000 future mental anguish, $500,000 for past disfigurement, and $100,000 for future disfigurement. His wife was compensated $500,000 for past mental anguish and $400,000 for future mental anguish. The $7 million verdict, plus court costs and interest, could result in a total judgment of $8 million or more.
Morrow & Sheppard LLP co-counseled and tried the case with Guillermo G. del Barrio, Jr. of the Law Offices of Guillermo G. del Barrio, Jr.
The case is Ramirez v. Westwind Homes, et al; No. 2015-CVT003262D4; In the 406th District Court of Webb County, Texas.