In a case involving an arcane issue for natural gas distribution utilities, a California appeals court last Thursday reversed a $12 million jury award in a lower court lawsuit by two plaintiffs against Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas). The utility had appealed the 2005 verdict.

The outcome at this level means most likely that the gas industry will take additional steps to warn about the phenomenon of "odor fade," in which the odorant added to natural gas is absorbed by the walls of new steel piping systems. The court specifically took note of and encouraged the gas industry to do more about the chemical transfer issue.

The plaintiffs were two plumbers in the central San Joaquin Valley who were working at Porterville Unified School District property in Tulare County where the original trial took place. Both men were severely burned in 2005 trying to light a water heater pilot light in an enclosed room at a school district construction site.

The men contended that the Sempra Energy gas utility failed to warn that artificial odorant could fade in certain situations.

The jury determined that the two men were not adequately warned that the odorant could fade when the gas passes through new steel piping.

Plumbers Sean Huitt and Matt Nino were injured when the undetected gas exploded in a water heat closet at a newly developed site that had new natural gas piping. Natural gas had accumulated unnoticed in the closet's confined space. A process known as adsorption had taken place in the pipes in which the new steel had absorbed the odorant, although gas supplied had been odorized.

The plumbers argued in their lawsuit that SoCalGas had a duty to warn them of the possibility of adsorption, or "odor fade," and that they would not have bled the gas into a confined space had they known the danger they faced. The jury agreed, awarding each man $1 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, finding the gas utility "acted with malice."

In its appeal, SoCalGas argued that it did not owe "a duty to the plaintiffs," and even if it did, the men failed to show that a failure to warn actually caused the injuries. The Fifth District Court of Appeal agreed.

One of the state appellate court justices reasoned that the case record did not show that even if the utility had given a warning that it would have ever reached the two plaintiff plumbers. "Odor fate is a potentially dangerous phenomenon that apparently is not well known in the new construction industry...efforts should be made to inform appropriate individuals about the phenomenon, and we encourage [SoCalGas], as well as other in the industry, to undertake efforts to educate those working in new construction," wrote Justice Dennis A. Cornell.

The appellate court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to establish "that a timely warning" issued by SoCalGas "would have prevented this accident." Therefore, the court decided they were not entitled to the jury-awarded recovery.

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