Texas propane retailer fends off legal claims in food booth fire

April 17, 2013 By    

In August and September 2012, an El Paso County, Texas, jury heard from more than 40 witnesses in a month-long trial involving a fire that occurred in 2009 at the 95th annual San Lorenzo Church Fiesta in Clint.

The fire at the center of the legal dispute focused on a food booth that was rented by a local 4-H club. There were four teenagers working inside the booth at the time of the accident; two suffered severe burns and were hospitalized for an extensive period of time.

A 4-H volunteer provided the kitchen equipment used inside the booth. The equipment included a large deep fryer connected to a DOT propane cylinder, a steam table that was fueled by a 6.8-gallon mobile ASME propane tank, and a funnel cake fryer that was connected to another DOT propane cylinder. The volunteer said that he last filled the propane containers about 10 months before the festival at Denman Propane in El Paso.

The cause of the fire was vehemently disputed at trial. The plaintiffs argued that this was a propane event caused by a leaking fill valve on the mobile ASME tank. The defendants, Denman Propane and the church, argued that this was a hot cooking oil event caused when the teenagers accidentally dropped ice or water into the funnel cake fryer.

Denman Propane’s primary position was that it never filled the mobile ASME tank. Its bottle filler had been the sole filler of propane containers at the location for the past 27 years. He was adamant that he would not have filled the tank because he believed that it would have been illegal to do so. Contrary to the bottle filler’s testimony, the owner of the tank gave great details to the jury about the facts of the particular fill.

Denman’s secondary position was that the filler of the tank did nothing wrong in filling it.

The plaintiffs’ propane standards expert, Edward Ziegler, testified that the mobile ASME tank should not have been filled because it was unmounted, had not been requalified and contained appurtenances that were too old – 19 years. He also relied heavily on Texas LP-Gas Safety Rule 9.135, which states that a propane container should not be filled if there is knowledge of a safety risk.

Ziegler contended that Denman Propane’s filler had no knowledge about the installation or whether the installation was safe, and therefore it was negligent per se to do so. Denman’s propane standards expert, David Meyer, testified that the mobile ASME tank did not require requalification. He also testified that there is no code requirement or industry standard that precludes filling a mobile ASME tank when it is not permanently attached to a vehicle or other utilization device.

Denman’s third position was that the event was caused by water being introduced to hot cooking oil.

The plaintiffs’ origin and cause expert, Tim Dunn, reviewed the evidence and concluded that the event was caused by a propane leak from the ASME tank’s fill valve. Its tank expert, Michael Huerta, tested the tank, found a leak of unspecified volume at an unspecified working pressure and concluded that the fill valve must have leaked immediately prior to the fire.

Denman’s tank expert, Allen Eberhardt, tested the tank and determined the valve did not leak at working pressures on the date of loss. He testified that the only perceptible leak during testing was a small “fuzz leak” at extremely low working pressures that would not hold a flame, let alone reach the lower explosive limit.

Denman’s origin and cause expert, Scott Davis, reviewed all of the evidence and performed his own tests. He also created a gas dispersion model of the purported gas leak. Even with all factors being weighed heavily in the plaintiffs’ favor, Davis concluded that the fire and resulting damages could not have been caused by a propane leak. He also provided the jury with a video demonstration of a cooking oil fire under similar circumstances.

Plaintiffs’ counsel asked the jury to award in excess of $19 million in damages to the teenage victims and their families. The jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of Denman Propane and the Catholic Diocese of El Paso after six hours of deliberations.

John V. McCoy is with McCoy Leavitt Laskey LLC, and his firm represents industry members nationally. He can be reached at 262-522-7007 or jmccoy@MLLlaw.com.

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1 Comment on "Texas propane retailer fends off legal claims in food booth fire"

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  1. Hank Hill says:

    Denman is owned by amerigas so research your stories a little more hell