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Huitt v. Southern California Gas Co.

October 7, 2010


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Tulare County. Lloyd L. Hicks, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. VCU222196).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cornell, J.



Michael Sean Huitt and Matt Nino (hereafter collectively plaintiffs) were injured while attempting to light a water heater at a construction site (hereafter the school site or school) owned by the Porterville Unified School District (hereafter the school district). After initial attempts to light the water heater's pilot light failed, Huitt decided to bleed any accumulated air in the natural gas pipe. This action caused natural gas to accumulate in the water heater closet. After Huitt sealed the natural gas line, he again attempted to light the water heater's pilot light. The accumulated natural gas exploded, resulting in serious injuries to plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs filed suit against the Southern California Gas Company (hereafter the Gas Company), alleging that the natural gas that had accumulated in the water heater closet lacked any odorant. Natural gas, in its natural state, is a colorless and odorless gas. Federal regulations require odorant be added to natural gas so that it is detectable by a person with a normal sense of smell. (49 C.F.R. § 192.625, subd. (a) (2003).)

The evidence established that the odorant added to natural gas is adsorbed by new steel gas pipes until the pipes become seasoned (or saturated). It was undisputed that the natural gas supplied by the Gas Company to the school site was odorized properly at the meter, but the odorant was adsorbed as it traveled through the new steel gas pipes owned and installed by the school district.

Plaintiffs argued the Gas Company had a duty to warn them that new steel gas pipes adsorb the odorant in the natural gas and, had they known of this fact, they would not have bled the gas pipe into a confined closet. The jury agreed and awarded each plaintiff in excess of $1 million in compensatory damages. In addition, the jury found that the Gas Company acted with malice and awarded each plaintiff $5 million in punitive damages.

The Gas Company urges us to reverse the judgment for a variety of reasons. It contends it did not owe a duty to plaintiffs and, even if it did, plaintiffs failed to establish a causal connection between the failure to warn and plaintiffs' injuries. It also alleges that the trial court was without jurisdiction to hear the case because it was preempted by the authority of the Public Utilities Commission (hereafter PUC or Commission). Finally, the Gas Company argues there was no evidence to establish it acted with malice.

We find it unnecessary to address each of these arguments because we conclude there was no evidence that, had the Gas Company issued a warning, either Huitt or Nino would have been aware of it. The lack of evidence that the Gas Company's failure to issue a warning was the cause of the accident precludes recovery by plaintiffs. Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment and order judgment be entered in favor of the Gas Company.


I. Pleadings

In the first amended complaint, plaintiffs alleged they were hired to perform various tasks at the school site, including the lighting of a hot water heater. Natural gas escaped from natural gas pipes and, when plaintiffs attempted to light the water heater, fire filled the room, causing them serious and permanent injuries.

Plaintiffs specifically alleged the Gas Company negligently installed, maintained, and inspected its equipment, resulting in a gas leak that resulted in the fire that injured plaintiffs.*fn1 In a separate cause of action, plaintiffs alleged the Gas Company's product was unsafe because the odorizing agent added to the natural gas was neutralized when it ran through the new pipes at the school site. Therefore, when gas escaped from the pipes, plaintiffs were unable to smell it and attempted to light the water heater, even though the room was filled with natural gas. The Gas Company responded with a general denial to the unverified complaint and asserted 19 affirmative defenses.

II. Testimony

This was a lengthy trial with numerous witnesses. Although we have reviewed the entire transcript of the trial, we limit our factual summary to the witnesses we deem relevant to the issue of causation.

Michael Sean Huitt

Huitt, an experienced plumber, was employed by Todd's Plumbing and was told to go to the school site to work on a list of items that needed completion. When he arrived there on November 16, 2005, he was told there was no hot water on one side of the building. Huitt went into the water heater closet and followed his standard procedure for starting a water heater. He turned on the gas valve, turned the valve to "pilot," held down the red button, and hit the striker to light the pilot light. The pilot light did not light. Huitt glanced at the lighting instructions but did not pay attention as he had lit many water heaters in the past.

When the water heater would not light, Huitt shut off the natural gas valve and then opened a valve to bleed out any air that might have been in the gas pipe. A high pressure stream of what later was determined to be natural gas came out of the gas pipe. This caused Huitt to believe the gas pipe was still under air test pressure. In a normal natural gas pipe there should be only about one-half pound per square inch of pressure. There was considerably more pressure in this pipe, causing Huitt to believe air test pressure had been retained in the pipe. The only odor Huitt smelled was of pipe machine oil. He did not smell natural gas. Had he smelled natural gas, he would have opened the door and aired out the room before again attempting to light the water heater.

Huitt left the gas pipe open for a "matter of seconds." He then put the cap back on and followed the same procedures to light the pilot light. When he hit the igniter, he heard the "whoosh of the flame." Huitt held his breath, closed his eyes, and pushed Nino into the small room next to the water heater closet. The door shut behind Nino and Huitt fell to the ground. He could smell his hair and skin burning and knew he would be severely scarred. He tried to open the door, but the skin on his hand peeled off. Nino eventually opened the door and helped Huitt out of the closet.

Huitt was in severe pain and was taken to the local hospital where he was treated. He was transferred to the burn center at University Medical Center (UMC) for further treatment. Huitt was diagnosed with superficial first and second degree burns on his left and right upper extremities, including his hands, totaling 6 percent of his body. The pain was severe and Huitt lost consciousness several times during treatment.

Huitt insisted on going home the following day. His wife assisted in his care. His bandages had to be changed twice a day, and each time the pain was excruciating. Huitt also suffered three outbreaks of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), a severe infection. Two of Huitt's sons also contracted MRSA infections. He returned to work a few weeks after the accident. Thankfully, he did not have any residual scarring.

At the time of the accident, Huitt did not know odorant in natural gas could fade.

Matt Nino

Nino was working as a plumber's helper on the day of the accident. He had gone with Huitt to the school site to work on a punch list. The superintendent on the school site showed them to the water heater closet, which was inside of a janitor's closet. Huitt and Nino tried to start the water heater but it would not light. They decided to bleed the gas pipe for five to 10 seconds. Huitt then attempted to light the water heater and the natural gas in the room ignited. Nino reached for the door but the skin came off of his hands. He eventually was able to open the door and exit the room. The door closed before Huitt was able to get out of the room. Nino opened the door with his elbow and Huitt was able to escape. They went outside and were sprayed with water by one of the other workers. When the ambulance arrived, they were given morphine and taken to the local hospital. From there they were transported to the burn unit at UMC, where they were admitted to the intensive care unit.

Nino went through the debridement process, which caused incredible pain. Initially, the bandages had to be changed daily, but then Nino was given a different bandage that had to be changed every other day. It was extremely painful when the bandages were removed. Nino had to make sure the bandages did not dry out, so every four hours he had to squirt distilled water on them.

After discharge, Nino returned to the hospital every other day to have his bandages changed. After approximately two weeks, he began using a bandage that had to be changed daily, but could be changed at home. He was required to keep his injuries bandaged for three to four weeks.

Nino eventually contracted an MRSA infection in his leg that caused him to miss a few days of work. He has not had an outbreak since early 2006. He did not need skin grafts after the accident.

Nino admitted that neither he nor Huitt read the instructions when attempting to light the water heater.

Ronald Aaron Marks

Marks, a mechanical engineer who was retained by plaintiffs, examined the water heater Huitt was attempting to light. No flaws were found in the water heater. He opined that when Huitt pushed the igniter button, the spark ignited the natural gas Huitt had bled into the room. Marks went on to opine that there was no odorant in the natural gas because, if there had been, Huitt, an experienced plumber, would have smelled the odorant and would not have attempted to light the water heater.

Marks did not fault Huitt for not reading the installation manual for the water heater because Huitt had worked with the same ...

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