$14.8 Million Verdict for Family in Home Gas Explosion
Blanchard v. Panhandle Plumbing Inc., et. al. | Okaloosa County County Court, Okaloosa County | No. 2010 CA 000611 S
On Nov. 19, 2009, plaintiffs' decedent Michael Blanchard, 49, and his partner, plaintiff Fay Boroughs, a woman in her 40s, were renting a residence at 217 Calhoun Ave. in Destin when a natural gas explosion ignited in the home's laundry room. According to Boroughs, in February 2002, Andrews Cooling & Heating Inc. installed a gas dryer for the previous homeowners, Timm Shores and Linda Shores, who moved out of the residence in November 2006 and brought the gas dryer with them. When Boroughs and Blanchard moved into the residence in February 2008, they had an electric dryer installed where the Shoreses' gas dryer was formerly located. Boroughs alleged that an open gas line was located where the gas dryer used to be. Boroughs alleged that the line had been installed by Panhandle Plumbing Inc., immediately prior to the installation of the Shoreses' gas dryer. On the morning of the explosion, Boroughs turned on the furnace only to have natural gas escape through an uncapped gas outlet into the laundry room. The accumulation of gas was ignited minutes later with Blanchard and Boroughs within feet of the explosion's epicenter. Blanchard later died from his injuries, and Boroughs suffered burn injuries to nearly 33 percent of her body. Boroughs and Blanchard's estate sued Andrews Cooling, Panhandle and the Shoreses for claims of negligence. Boroughs also sued the gas provider for the home, Okaloosa Gas District, and the moving company the Shoreses hired that unhooked and moved their gas dryer, Professional Moving Services of Northwest Florida Inc. The plaintiffs, the Shoreses and Okaloosa Gas District resolved Boroughs' and the estate's claims prior to trial, and the defendants were subsequently dismissed. The plaintiffs and Professional Moving Services entered into a confidential high-low agreement, and the defendant proceeded to trial along with Andrews Cooling and Panhandle. Plaintiffs' counsel maintained that Panhandle, despite its denial, installed the gas line in the Shoreses' residence. There was no documentation or bills recovered to prove that Panhandle installed the gas line, but plaintiffs' counsel maintained that Timm Shores (who testified over objection regarding his belief that Panhandle installed the line in his home) and Panhandle were engaged in a long-standing business relationship, in which Panhandle performed approximately 30 jobs for Shores' contracting company, before and after the gas-line installation. Shores claimed that he thought he would be billed for the gas-line installation, but never was. Plaintiffs' counsel asserted that it was Shores and Panhandle's business relationship that prompted Panhandle to run 25 feet of copper line through two rooms and an attic, during a half-a-day job, for no charge. The plaintiffs' expert in safety engineering opined that gas-safety codes require that a gas line be labeled in order to delineate which appliance the line is being used for. In the plaintiffs' home, there was a source of gas coming out of the wall, with the gas line traveling in two directions: one to a heater and the other to another room. The expert said that there was no labeling on either side of the break in separation to indicate where the gas was going. He opined that Boroughs, before turning on the furnace, would not have opened both valves of the gas line. In addition to its failure to label the gas line, Panhandle did not install a safety shut-off valve in the laundry room, concluded the expert. Plaintiffs' counsel faulted Panhandle for not acquiring a permit from the city of Destin before installing the gas line in the Shoreses' residence. The plaintiffs' expert in building inspection, who was Destin's master-code inspector, discussed the history and purpose of the code, and opined that installation of the gas line would require an inspection under the regulations, and Panhandle never applied for a permit. Had Panhandle applied for a permit, city officials would have conducted an inspection that would have disclosed the problems of the line and prevented it from ever being used, he opined. Plaintiffs' counsel contended that Andrews Cooling installed the Shoreses' gas dryer without complying with the dryer's installation instructions, which required the gas appliance only be installed to a gas line if the line was in accordance with the codes. According to plaintiffs' counsel, Andrews Cooling admitted that it knew of code compliance but failed to train its employees to follow it, despite the dryer's instruction manual explicitly instructing gas-code compliance. Plaintiffs' counsel also contended that Professional Moving Services left the gas line open after it unhooked and moved the gas dryer. Defense counsel for Panhandle maintained that Panhandle did not install the gas line; there was a discussion with Shores to install a line, but it never materialized. Additionally, Shores admitted that he never saw Panhandle install the line, and that the failure to obtain a permit and the alleged failure to comply with safety code requirements was inconsistent with his long-standing experience with Panhandle Plumbing since the company always applied for permits and used a licensed master plumber to perform its gas jobs. Counsel for Andrews Cooling argued that an appliance installer owed no duty to inspect the existing gas line for defects. They maintained that, because the equipment used by Andrews Cooling to connect the dryer to the gas line had been removed prior to the explosion, there was no evidence that the dryer was not installed in accordance with the gas codes. They further argued that the cause of the explosion was the failure to cap the gas line when the dryer was removed six years after it was installed. Counsel for Professional Moving asserted that it did not disconnect the gas dryer, and that it was not its responsibility to ensure gas-piping systems were appropriately installed. Professional Moving also suggested that it did not, in fact, move the appliances in the residence.
Blanchard and Boroughs were taken by an ambulance to a hospital. Blanchard suffered burns to 98 percent of his body and was placed into a medically induced coma. The severity of the burns prevented any artificial skin grafting to occur, and Blanchard died three weeks later. His estate sought to recover $280,477.06 in past medical costs. Boroughs, suffering second- and third-degree burns throughout her body, was put into a medically induced coma for two weeks and placed on a ventilator, due to inhalation damage sustained by the blast. She received skin grafting to her hands, arms, chest, face and ears. Upon her discharge on Dec. 21, she underwent a month of occupational and physical therapies and continued wound-care treatment, in addition to receiving psychological counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. She sought to recover $286,501.58 in past medical costs. In his testimony, Boroughs' expert in burn medicine discussed the science of burns, the resultant pain, grafting procedures, psychological consequences, and the body's reaction to burns, i.e., an increased metabolism. Boroughs, who requires cosmetic treatment in the future, said that she wears loose-fitting clothing to conceal her burns on her arms and chest, and wears a lot of makeup on her face. She said that she continues to take psychiatric medication to control her depression, anxiety attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sleeplessness. She claimed that she occasionally tenses up when she hears sirens or sees anything fire-related, like fire trucks. She sought to recover unspecified amounts in non-economic damages for past and future pain and suffering. Boroughs and Blanchard's son, William, was in the house at the time of the accident and sought damages for emotional distress. The plaintiffs' expert in child psychiatry discussed the effects on William of growing up without a father. According to plaintiffs' counsel, the testimony of Panhandle's expert in burn medicine corroborated with the plaintiffs' alleged damages and the degree of harm inflicted onto Boroughs and Blanchard.
The jury determined that Panhandle Plumbing and Andrews Cooling & Heating were each 30 percent negligent, Okaloosa Gas District 15 percent negligent, and the Shores 25 percent negligent. Jurors found that there was a physical impact to William Blanchard. No negligence was found against Professional Moving Services. The jury determined that the plaintiffs' damages totaled $14,887,640.52.