South TX Jury Slaps $6.9M on CenterPoint, Westwind in Gas Leak Case
© 2017 The Texas Lawbook.
By Natalie Posgate
(Nov. 1) – A Laredo jury last Wednesday awarded nearly $7 million to a local elderly man and his family for a 2015 house gas explosion that left him with severe, lifelong injuries and put him out of work forever as a mechanic.
Jurors determined after a two-week trial that Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, the natural gas provider, and Laredo-based Westwind Homes, the homebuilder, were responsible for the accident after failing multiple times to cap and seal a gas valve in the house.
The incident occurred in February 2015, when Fernando Ramirez was repairing an electric dryer in the utility room of his daughter and son-in-law’s house. Ramirez and his wife, Minerva, were at the house babysitting their granddaughter while their daughter and son-in-law were out of town. They had asked Mr. Ramirez to take a look at the dryer while he was there.
The gas valve was located directly behind the dryer, and gas began to leak after Ramirez, who “didn’t even know the valve was there,” inadvertently knocked it open while attempting to repair the dryer, said John Sheppard, who represented the family at trial.
“There was a huge explosion that the neighbors described sounded like a sonic boom,” said Sheppard, founding partner of Morrow & Sheppard in Houston. “It moved the house off its foundation and had to be totally rebuilt.”
Many of Ramirez’s injuries, on the other hand, cannot be reversed. Sheppard says he doesn’t sweat anymore because his body can no longer regulate its own temperature, so he can’t expose himself to much heat (thus can no longer work). He suffered second-degree burns that his suddenly-homeless daughter and son-in-law (who are both nurses) tended to for months while living out of a hotel after Ramirez was discharged from the hospital for being unable to pay his medical bills. He has problems doing everyday tasks like picking up a cup of coffee or driving due to the loss of dexterity in his hands. He also suffers from depression and PTSD, Sheppard said.
The strongest pieces of evidence of CenterPoint’s and Westwind’s negligence, Sheppard said, included proof that the gas valve was not capped and sealed at the time the home was sold in 2011, nor when CenterPoint turned on the gas afterward. A CenterPoint document presented at trial showed that the technician only spent four minutes at the house, and suggested that he did not even enter the home.
Jurors also learned that CenterPoint has a corporate policy of sealing all valves in homes of their Houston customers, but it has no such policy in Laredo.
“It’s clear that the jury saw this as a safety issue not just for the Ramirez family, but for the community,” Sheppard said. “Here in CenterPoint’s headquarters in Houston, they’re dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s, but why aren’t the folks in Laredo being serviced the same?”
Lawyers for CenterPoint and Westwind did not immediately respond to voicemails seeking comment.
In a briefing, CenterPoint had attempted to exclude the evidence about its internal policies from trial because it believed the Ramirezes were attempting “to impose a standard of conduct on CenterPoint in excess of that legally required to it. AS has been held by every Texas appellate court to consider the issue, a utility’s liability is governed by its tariff.”
The verdict form shows that the jury assigned 60 percent of the responsibility for the explosion to Westwind, 34 percent to CenterPoint and 6 percent to a third-party subcontractor that Westwind hired to fulfill plumbing work.
The remainder of the Ramirez family’s legal team at trial included Sheppard’s law partner, Nick Morrow, paralegal Jose Jimenez and local counsel Guillermo de Barrio of the Law Offices of Guillermo G. del Barrio Jr.