Most people wouldn’t associate propane gas with a high risk of serious personal injury. Aren’t they used, in fact, to heat many homes? Don’t people use propane tanks all the time to cook on their outdoor gas grills? Since that’s the case, the risk of injury in using them can’t be that high, right?
If you were to take that attitude, you’d be quite incorrect in doing so. Propane gas can be extremely volatile. Stored under pressure in steel tanks, the gas can be ignited with a simple spark. If that happens, that harmless-looking tank, whether a smaller one used for gas grills or a larger one used to heat a house, can become, literally, a bomb.
This was the case about two years ago, when propane tank at a house construction site in Norfolk, Massachusetts suddenly exploded, killing a man by the name of William Nichols. Nichols, who was 46 years old at the time he was killed in this Massachusetts construction site accident, was working on the heating and air conditioning system in a duplex that was under construction. Following the explosion, Nichols was trapped under the rubble for over an hour and a half before firefighters could reach and extricate him. Mr. Nichols died of his injuries later that night at a hospital. Facts like this impact the value of a tragic case like this, as it factors into what is called “conscious pain and suffering.”
The family of Mr. Nichols settled recently with two defendants in this case, EnergyUSA and Smolinsky Plumbing and Heating, for $7.5 million. In total, Mr. Nichols’ family and two other individuals who survived the explosion but suffered with permanent injuries brought the total settlements in this case to $22.5 million, According to the lawyer for Nichols’ family. In case anyone things this makes things “right” for Mr. Nichols’ family, it doesn’t. As a Dedham and Boston construction site accident lawyer, I can assure you: No amount of money can ever replace a loved one who has been killed or permanently disabled in a tragedy like this. Money damages can only provide economic security for the victim’s family; nothing more.
An investigation into the accident showed that some type of ignition source had caused gas that had escaped the propane tank, to explode. That ignition source could have been anything: The slightest spark would do it. That an ignition source caused the explosion was already a fair guess prior to the investigation being undertaken. But the investigation revealed something far more pernicious and dangerous than that: It determined that there was almost no odorant in the propane. Anyone who has ever smelled unlit natural gas escaping in their home knows that unmistakable smell. That offensive odor is a chemical called ethyl mercaptan, and is placed in the natural gas by all gas utility companies, as a safety mechanism to warn household occupants if unlit natural gas is escaping, such as through a stove burner that is in an “open” position, but is not lit, or in the case of a water heater that is not lit.
What this investigation revealed, is that the propane tank that exploded in this case contained “virtually no odorant,” according to Massachusetts Fire Marshal Stephen Coan, who participated in the investigation. What this meant is that Mr. Nichols and other construction site workers would have had no warning of any danger prior to the explosion. As the propane gas leaked out of the tank unnoticeably, they were essentially sitting ducks in the event of the slightest spark – from an electrical drill, a cigarette, even a spark from a hammer hitting a nail. Not only did the investigation reveal that no odorant was placed in the propane gas tank on the construction site where Mr. Nichols was killed, it revealed something far worse: It seems that artificial odorant is almost never used with propane gas tank production. The Nichols accident investigation ultimately led investigators to a major regional propane facility in Westfield, Massachusetts, where several railroad cars were discovered to be loaded with propane tanks that contained no odorant. Because of this investigation, the state fire marshal’s office has proposed new propane regulations that would require manufacturers of propane gas to inject odorant into the gas tanks, to warn users if there is a leak.
The pending regulations would require that propane gas companies regularly test gases in three different methods to ensure that there are adequate levels of ethyl mercaptan, the odorant, at every stage of the manufacturing process. Also under the regulations, railroad cars would also have to pass inspection before they could be unloaded in Massachusetts, and new propane tanks placed underground would have to adhere to strict new safety guidelines.
The proposed regulations have already been approved by the state Board of Fire Prevention and are awaiting approval in order to hold a public hearing, which could occur as soon as September. The regulations would go into effect approximately a month following the public hearing. Included within the proposed regulations is mandatory training for anyone handling propane – this would include gas grill owners, who would have to complete about 30 minutes of instruction. (Note: The gas grill industry isn’t going to like this. Don’t be surprised if they oppose this measure. ) Regardless, all of these proposed changes will make it safer for thousands of homeowners who use propane for heat, for grill owners throughout Massachusetts and for the firefighters who respond to these safety issues.
And who brought these safety changes about? Plaintiffs’ tort lawyers – the same professionals who have been fighting for public safety and consumer safety for years. The same professionals who have made the legal term “product liability” as widely known as it is today.
I hope that those who like to criticize plaintiffs’ tort lawyers, can have the honesty to recognize this. But that’s just me.