The circuit ruling rejected the claim by plaintiffs of four errors at 27th District Court level (Dist. Judge Donald Hebert) and let stand the awards, saying the children, parents and grandparents will suffer all their lives from the accident’s impact.
The explosion and fire occurred early on June 15, 2003, Father’s Day, at the home of the Carl Jones, Sr. family.
Defendants in the litigation were a host of inter-related companies. A jury found them 50 percent at fault and Jones, Sr. 50 percent at fault.
Jones, Sr. reconnected the gas line on June 14, about a month after it had been disconnected. The trail of litigation began within a year; the verdict came in 2010.
Jones, Sr. admitted reconnecting the line and dropped his claim to personal injuries late in the litigation but retained his action on behalf of his children.
A jury found Centerpoint Energy 50 percent responsible for failing to use a device that would prevent re-connection of the line.
On its appeal, the circuit court notes, Centerpoint Energy asserts that its actions were not the legal cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries.
In making this argument, Centerpoint Energy argues that Jones’ re-connection of the gas service constituted intervening conduct that was not only grossly negligent, intentional, and criminal, but also not foreseeable.
In considering this argument at the trial level, the evidence before the trial court consisted primarily of the testimony of the various family members describing the events between the May 7, 2003 cut off of service and the June 15, 2003 explosion.
“Sometime after the May 7 disconnect, Mr. Jones and Carl, Jr. removed the gas stove from the kitchen and stored it in a shed behind the house. However, in doing so, they failed to cap the then-open service line in the house.
“This open service line later proved to be the source of the gas that entered the house on the evening of June 14 and the early morning hours of June 15, 2003.
“Although the Jones family replaced the gas stove with an electric one, they did not replace the gas hot water heater. Without an independent source of hot water, all hot water needs for washing, bathing, and any other task had to be fulfilled by heating water on the electric stove.
“According to Jones, this lack of hot water in the home and his attempt to keep from being embarrassed by these circumstances led to his ill-advised attempt to reconnect the gas service on the evening of June 14, 2003.
“June 15, 2003 was Father’s Day, and the Jones family had invited their Pastor and some church members to share a meal at their house on that day.
“Jones testified that he basically felt a need to be “the man of the house” and remedy the embarrassing lack of hot water for his family.
“He testified that at approximately 8:30 on the evening of June 14, 2003, he used a crescent wrench to “pop the little tag off the meter” and open the valve.
“After he unsuccessfully attempted to light the gas hot water heater that previously provided the family with hot water, he returned to the meter intending to shut off the valve.
“According to Mr. Jones, when he did return to the meter and attempted to turn the valve off, he was frightened away by lights from an approaching vehicle and “didn’t know if [he] turned it off or what.”
“H owever, because the hot water heater would not ignite, he simply assumed that he had no gas service at all. Mr. Jones acknowledged that he knew what he was doing was not only wrong, but that it was criminal. Furthermore, he stated that he simply forgot he had not capped the line previously connecting the gas system to the gas stove.
“Mrs. Jones tried to explain her husband’s lack of memory by referring to two strokes he suffered in 2001. According to Mrs. Jones, not only is her husband disabled from working, but he has suffered from memory loss since the strokes. None of the family even knew that he had attempted to reinstate the gas flow on the evening of June 14, 2003.
“Bedtime, according to the occupants of the house, was strictly enforced and fell between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m. on the evening of June 14, 2003. Thus, most of the occupants were either in bed or getting ready for bed when Jones attempted to reconnect the gas service to the house.
While all the family members who were asked acknowledged smelling natural gas either inside or outside the house in the past, none testified at trial that the smell was present in the house before the explosion on June 15.
“A witness credited this failure to detect the leaking gas to the fact that gas is lighter than air and that initially it filled up the attic and ceiling. Thereafter, the occupants gradually became used to the smell without recognizing the change in their environment.
Mrs. Jones testified that at approximately 4 a.m., she awoke and began preparing to go to work. She took a sponge bath, woke Dashawana and told her to change Dai’Jhnea’s diaper, and plugged in the coffee pot in the kitchen. As she returned to the bedroom, she heard an explosion and observed a large ball of fire which appeared to originate from the children’s bedroom traveling across the ceiling.
“Dashawana testified that as she changed the baby in her parents’ bedroom, she also heard an explosion and saw a ball of fire enter the bedroom. The resulting fire throughout the house severely burned all of the occupants.
“We find that Mr. Jones’ actions in leaving an uncapped gas line open in the house, breaking the plastic locking device and stealing natural gas, and negligently leaving the natural gas running into the house all night, are exactly the unsafe acts that Centerpoint Energy’s duty to properly terminate service is designed to prevent.
“Weighing the evidentiary inferences in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, we conclude that reasonable men could find that Mr. Jones’ conduct was foreseeable. Therefore, Centerpoint Energy’s argument that it should be relieved of liability based on Mr. Jones’ intervening, superceding negligence is without merit,” the court said.
The defendants argued that the general damages awards to Dai’Jhnea, Dashawana, and Marquetta are excessive and that the loss of consortium awards to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph should be eliminated.
The court noted that an expert testified that not only did each child have to endure the pain and suffering associated with the burns themselves, as well as the initial treatment required to treat those injuries, but that the effect of these injuries will require a lifetime of continued treatment.
He suggested that not only would the already-completed skin grafts have to be replaced every 15 to 20 years, but the children’s inability to perspire places them at high risk for heat stroke, and they will remain at an increased chance of skin cancer and infections for the remainder of their lives.
Dai’Jhnea was 13 months old at the time of the explosion and fire, and she sustained second and third degree burns over almost half of her body. These injuries caused burns and scarring on her face, lips, chin, ears, chest, abdomen, legs, feet, arms, and hands, and she has already endured numerous surgical procedures to treat those injuries.
“According to Dr. Henderson, her future skin grafts will be performed by transplanting harvested skin from areas of her body which were not injured, hereby causing even more scarring. Additionally, future skin grafts will become more difficult because the supply of undamaged skin available for the needed procedures will decrease with each new procedure.”
He testified that because Dai’Jhnea was so young when she sustained her injuries, she will have more problems with skin contracture as she ages. This problem alone will require at least 20 more contracture-release surgeries, with physical therapy following each surgery. Dai’Jhnea’s head was so severely burned that she will never be able to grow hair in the scarred area of her scalp. Dai’Jhnea has an American Medical Association disability rating of 65 percent.
Dai’Jhnea’s mother testified that her daughter still cannot move or use her right hand. Additionally, Dai’Jhnea cannot play outside, run, or even watch an outside event because of her condition. Her appearance has caused her difficulties in social development and she has had to change schools two times because of teasing by other children.
“Considering the pain Dai’Jhnea has suffered, both mentally and physically, and the devastating impact that her injuries will have on her for the remainder of her life, we find no abuse of discretion in the jury’s award,” the court wrote.
Dashawana, 17 at the time of the explosion and fire, sustained second and third degree burns over 50 percent of her body. She sustained extensive damage to her face, arms, hands, thighs, knees, and calves, and her right ear was partially destroyed.
Skin was harvested from her back for grafts, causing additional scarring. Some of her joints are contracted due to extensive scarring and do not function properly. She, too, underwent multiple surgeries and will need at least eight additional surgical skin grafts over the next eight years.
When she reaches her mid-forties, she will need surgery for wound degeneration and breakdowns approximately every three years for the rest of her life. Dashawana is a Certified Nursing Assistant, but due to her injuries she cannot lift or transfer her patients. She has an American Medical Association disability rating of 48 percent.
Marquetta was 15 at the time of the explosion and fire, suffering suffered second-degree burns to 20 percent of her body and third-degree burns to over five percent of her body. The injuries were to her face, neck, arms, both legs, and her left foot.
The necklace and clothing she was wearing at the time of the explosion and fire, as well as the blanket wrapped around her, were burned into her body.
The skin harvested from the tops of her legs for her two initial skin grafts caused permanent scarring on her legs. She also will need multiple contracture release surgeries, skin grafts, and physical therapy.
As is the case with the other burn victims, Marquetta is unable to be in the sun for any period of time. She also feels a social stigma from her injuries and testified that she is ashamed of her scars, the court noted.
“It is abundantly clear that Mr. and Mrs. Joseph have suffered severe mental anguish because of the devastating and permanent damages to their daughter. The effect of the loss of these particular relationship factors supports the jury award of $100,000 each to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph.
“Not only did Dai’Jhnea’s parents have to suffer the temporary physical loss of their child during the initial treatment for her injuries, and in doing so lost that ability to hold and comfort her during that period, but the societal and companionship relationship that would normally exist between a parent and child has been permanently destroyed.
“Dai’Jhnea cannot run, play outside, or even watch an outside event because of her damaged skin. That being the case, Mr. and Mrs. Jones will never experience the enjoyment of watching their daughter participate in the most basic activities such as an Easter egg hunt, cheerleading, or bike riding to name a few.
“In fact, they cannot even sit together outside and watch others participate in those activities. Furthermore, the parents now have the added burden of working tirelessly with Dai’Jhnea to assist her in overcoming her social development limitations, and continuously counseling her on how to address the thoughtless teasing of children her age.
“With regard to the other applicable factor, the loss of performance of material services, almost all children help around the home in some small way. Whether it is to help wash dishes, sweep and dust, or take care of one’s room, a child can contribute.
“In the case of Dai’Jhnea, it is clear that she will be severely limited in her abilities to contribute even the smallest assistance to her parents. These limitations are not something that will improve in the future — in fact the overall relationship will forever be constrained by her ongoing medical needs.
“Considering the permanent and devastating effect of Dai’Jhnea’s injuries on the parent/child relationship both initially and for the remainder of the parents’ lives, we find no abuse of discretion in the jury’s award to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph for their loss of consortium.”