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Explosion Lawyer

What Causes Explosions? Who Is At Fault For An Explosion?

Explosions in the oil & gas industry can be caused by many things. Some examples are when equipment is malfunctioning, when the wrong equipment is used for a job, when company policy prohibits using certain types of equipment, when employees work around dangerous chemicals without proper training or protective gear, and when the danger warning devices are installed on pieces of equipment fail to function or are not properly maintained. In the industry, every accident is investigated to determine what exactly happened and who is to blame. In cases where an explosion occurs at a plant or offshore oil rig, there are very complex rules governing what equipment should be used, how it must be maintained, and what types of precautions must be taken when employees work with dangerous chemicals or other hazardous materials. When these rules are not followed, tragedies happen. The experienced explosion lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard LLP have handled numerous industrial plant and offshore explosion cases. In the cases we have handled, dangerous choices by oil and gas companies have caused serious injuries and horrific burns requiring surgeries, and even death. While the kinds and causes of fires and explosions vary, every single incident our experienced attorneys have encountered has the same overriding similarity: the fire or explosion could have been prevented if safety rules were followed.

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Common Types of Explosions

Before discussing what causes fires and explosions, it is helpful to discuss the contexts in which they occur. Here are some examples.

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Oilfield Explosions

Every year, there are several explosions in oilfields around the country.  These include explosions in the Texas Eagle Ford Shale, the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana, the STACK play and SCOOP Play (Woodford Shale) in Oklahoma, and the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico. As OSHA has recognized, “[w]orkers in the oil and gas industries face the risk of fire and explosion due to ignition of flammable vapors or gases.”  Flammable gases, such as well gases, vapors, and hydrogen sulfide, can be released from wells, trucks, production equipment, or surface equipment such as tanks and shale shakers. Ignition sources can include static, electrical energy sources, open flames, lightning, cutting and welding tools, hot surfaces, and frictional heat.” To learn more about the common causes of oilfield accidents, please review our article.

Industrial Explosions

Our industrial accident lawyers have handled plant, refinery, and industrial fires and explosions in a variety of contexts.   For example, we have handled cases in which a refinery operator failed to ensure lines were cleared during a welding operation, resulting in a flash fire that caused injuries.

Offshore And Maritime Explosions

Some of our offshore injury lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard LLP performed work in connection with the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which is perhaps the most well-known offshore explosion in recent history.  For reference, you can review our four-part series of articles about that explosion here:  Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV. What were the causes of the largest offshore explosions?  The common causes of offshore explosions include:

Vacuum Truck & Saltwater Disposal Explosions

Numerous work injury explosions have occurred involving oilfield vacuum trucks and saltwater disposal facilities.  For example:

In many cases, vacuum truck explosions and saltwater disposal explosions occur due to violations of explosion safety rules set out in API 2219, Safe Operation of Vacuum Trucks Handling Flammable and Combustible Liquids in Petroleum Service.  The above list contains numerous incidents specifically discussed in API 2219.

Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor (“BLEVE”) Explosions

Tanks and vessels around the world have exploded in boiling liquid expanding vapor (“BLEVE”) explosions.  BLEVE explosions occur when pressurized liquid in a tank or other vessel reaches a temperature above its boiling point.  The boiling point of liquids typically increases under pressure, which means the material in the tank may not boil as long as the vessel is intact.  When something causes the tank to rupture, however, the above-boiling liquid rapidly converts to gas and expands, which can cause a fire or explosion.

BLEVE examples include:

Home Explosions

Unfortunately, there have been a number of preventable home explosions and apartment complex explosions resulting in severe personal injury burns, death, and other injuries. For example, our firm handled and tried a $7 million home explosion lawsuit in Webb County, Texas (near the Rio Grande Valley) arising from a utility room lean from a gas valve.  Our expert fire and explosion investigators, and the jury, found the plumber, home builder, and CenterPoint Energy neglected to plug and seal the valve, in violation of various building codes and municipal ordinances. Our firm also recently handled another Colorado home explosion case which arose from leaking pipes underground.

Tank Battery Explosions

Numerous fires and explosions have occurred at tank battery facilities.  For example, on January 24, 2022, there was an explosion and fire at a central Oklahoma oil tank battery operated by Devon Energy near Okarche, Oklahoma.  Tank battery explosions have caused Louisiana to implement new safety rules.

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No Fee Unless We Win

At Morrow & Sheppard LLP, we understand the hardships of trying to heal and make sense of an accident. That is why we work on a contingency fee basis, which means no fee unless we win the case. Our fee is a percentage of the verdict or settlement we obtain for you.

The Fire Triangle

the fire triangle

For most explosions to occur, the three elements of the “fire triangle” must come together in one place.  The three elements of the fire triangle are (1) a fuel source; (2) oxygen; and (3) an ignition source.

Many times, investigations and news articles will focus on the ignition source of a fire or explosion.  However, our fire and explosion lawyers have learned that sometimes this emphasis is misplaced.  This is because, critically, if any one of the three legs of the fire triangle is eliminated, there will be no fire.  There will be no explosion.

Frequently, companies are negligent (or even grossly negligent) in failing to recognize that, as opposed to attempting to eliminate all ignition sources, safe work practice and a safe work environment can be more reasonably achieved by eliminating oxygen or a fuel source from the work scenario.  In the oilfield, there is a saying about this, which goes “if you have oxygen and you have a fuel source, the ignition source will find you.”

What’s The Difference Between A Fire And An Explosion?

A fire occurs when oxygen is rapidly consumed, producing heat and light.  This chemical process involves a fuel and an oxidizer that produce energy, an “exothermic” event. An explosion occurs when energy expands rapidly from the source, and there is a dangerous shock wave.  This is, technically, a purely physical process.  Explosions can occur without any combustion or fire.  For example, we handled a maritime injury case involving a pneumatic loading arm under pressure, which exploded and caused severe injuries and amputation.  However, the incident did not involve fire or combustion. Many catastrophic industrial, offshore, oilfield and work injury events include fire and an explosion.  For that reason, it is easy to confuse the two processes.  But fires and explosions are, scientifically, two different things.

Explosion Fuel Sources

The causes of explosions vary.  However, there are certain explosions that our fire and explosion lawyers see frequently in the work injury and wrongful death context.

  1. Chemical Explosions
  2. Liquid Explosions
  3. Vapor Explosions
  4. Solids Explosions
  5. Flash Fires

Explosion Ignition Sources

Common ignition sources of fires and explosions include:

  • Static electricity and other electrical discharge
  • Sparks
  • Pyrophoric materials such as iron sulfide
  • Electrical conductors and equipment
  • Overcurrent and overload
  • Short circuit
  • Synthetic clothing fibers
  • Lightning
  • Gas burners and pilot lights
  • Machinery
  • Appliances
  • Dust collection devices
  • Flashlights, radios, cameras

What’s This About Oxygen?

Technically, an explosion can occur without oxygen.  For example, in outer space, exploding stars (“supernovas”) are caused by nuclear and gravitational forces. Our explosion injury lawyers have also handled gas pressure explosions, which occur in things like boiler explosions and pressurized loading arm explosions.  Those do not necessarily require outside oxygen either. Most work injury explosion cases, however, involve a chemical reaction and burning.  Those generally require outside oxygen or an oxidizer, and sometimes both. An oxidizer accepts or “strips” electrons from another substance.  This can release energy and cause ignition in and of itself.  More frequently, oxidizers accelerate combustion—making the combustion event worse, more expansive, faster, or all of the above. As is discussed above, generally, if any of the three legs of the “fire triangle” are broken, a fire or explosion typically cannot occur.  A properly planned work operation typically involves eliminating as many of the three legs as is possible.  Many people are surprised to learn that, oftentimes, oxygen is the easiest of the three legs to eliminate.  For example, in a petroleum service operation, sometimes there will necessarily be a fuel source (the oil or gas product) present.  A well-planned and safe operation may require oxygen to be eliminated from the process, as well as the ignition source.  For example, a vacuum truck offloading operation or a refinery tank cleaning operation may be conducted safely through the use of a nitrogen blanket, which removes oxygen from the process.

Who Is At Fault For An Explosion?

Oil & gas companies are required to follow certain safety procedures, but many employers fail to do so. The explosion attorneys at Morrow & Sheppard LLP have seen numerous cases where oil & gas companies were negligent in their duties to properly maintain machinery and equipment. However, even if an oil & gas company does everything correctly according to safety standards, it can still be found liable for an explosion if it hires the wrong person for a job or negligently fails to train employees or keep proper records about who is working near machinery and on what. In cases such as these, the root cause of an explosion is not due to any single thing; instead, it stems from multiple negligent decisions made over time. For example, even if an oil & gas company follows all of the safety procedures, an explosion can still happen if one employee is working with the equipment without proper training. Similarly, it may be difficult to pinpoint who or what was at fault for an accident which took place on a platform. All the evidence points to the offshore oil rig being properly maintained and its employees being adequately trained, but the machinery used to drill a hole for oil or gas exploded. In cases such as these, it can be extremely challenging to determine who exactly is liable for what happened. In some situations involving offshore oil rigs and other industrial plants, parts of larger oil & gas companies are held responsible because they could have prevented an explosion. For example, an explosion may occur which injures a welder who is working on a job. The welder can sue the company he or she was employed by and the oil & gas company that contracted him. It’s important for oil & gas companies to follow all of the safety precautions required of them and to ensure that their employees are not negligent about any aspect of their jobs. When they fail to do so and another person is injured, the law expects companies to pay for their mistakes.

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Explosion Injury Lawyers Get To The Bottom Of What Happened

Our top-rated explosion attorneys are contacted by families all the time. Yes–they want, need, and are entitled to compensation for their injuries or loss of a loved one. But they also want to know what happened. They want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to someone else. Our experienced explosion lawyers at Morrow & Sheppard LLP take this role seriously. We have spent millions of dollars hiring expert engineers and fire investigators, visiting explosion sites, and doing what it takes to investigate the causes of work-related fires and explosions. We have always been told and are hopeful that our clients are proud of the work we have done investigating fires and explosions, and can provide references in that regard. If you are reading this, and you or a loved one has been a victim of a fire or explosion, we would appreciate the opportunity to do the same for you and your family.

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