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Jury rejects plaintiff’s pipe dream

September 1, 2006 By    

In late July of this year, I had the opportunity to defend Winchell’s Gas Company of Catskill, N.Y., in a lawsuit brought by an insurance company for a fire that destroyed their client’s home in 1997.

This case involved an explosion that was alleged to have resulted from gas leaking from a line to the furnace that Winchell’s had installed when the home was built in 1985.

The line of interest ran to the furnace line elbow connection, at which point it had separated. The portion of line that had separated had only 6-7 threads instead of the 10-11 required by NFPA 54 Section 2.6.7 (1984 edition).

 John McCoy
John McCoy

It was this lack of sufficient threads that allegedly placed undue stress against the connection, eventually resulting in a fracture of the elbow pipe connection. The crack allowed the gas to escape, find an ignition source and create an explosion and subsequent fire.

The insurance company had paid over $800,000 to its insured for the fire and was entitled to 9 percent interest from the date of payment until the verdict, if successful. This made their case potentially worth about $1.3 million.

Our defense focused on several fronts.

First, we established that in fire cases where the origin and cause investigation cannot eliminate all but one cause, the fire must be classified as undetermined. Plaintiffs conceded that there were several possibilities for the gas leak besides the gas line break, including other parts of the gas line that had not been tested and any of the gas appliances.

Next, we brought in the Winchell’s service person, who had long since retired. His recollection and interpretation of his service records from 1985 indicated that the company did not install the furnace connection that had broken.

Finally, we challenged the reasoning that a line that was short a few threads could exact enough pressure against an in-line pipe elbow to cause it to fracture, as it was designed to withstand over 2,000 psi of pressure. We demonstrated that it was more likely that the fracture was caused from a fall down onto the pipe from the top floor of the building during the fire.

The jury agreed with our arguments and returned a unanimous defense verdict.

This case is a fine example of how properly maintained records can be used to clarify events of many years ago, and what length plaintiffs will go to get money.

John V. McCoy is the president of McCoy & Hofbauer, S.C. and specializes in the representation of propane companies. He can be reached at 800-599-8300 or

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