Ignoring cylinder recertification dates can lead to costly legal problems

May 3, 2011 By    

Over the years of defending gas fire and explosion cases, resulting in personal injuries and property damages, I have seen the repeat of certain themes upon which plaintiff lawyers construct their cases against propane companies.

When it comes to propane cylinders, a common and recurring theme is that the cylinder is refilled and distributed into the stream of commerce after the time permitted by its manufacture or recertification date. This is typically 12 years from the date of manufacture and then at five-year intervals thereafter for recertification. This is for visual recertification. The dates vary for hydrostatic recertification, but that is rarely used from my experience.

The cylinders that enter the stream of commerce beyond the date of certification are rarely, if ever, the source of an actual leak. The valves on the cylinders rarely, if ever, malfunction or leak. Nonetheless, it forms the basis for many claims and safety code violations that can, in some instances, breathe life into a case for a plaintiff, who is legally speaking without merit.

This problem results in huge dollars spent on defending cases and often in huge dollars settling them. This issue is one problem the industry could solve if it simply focused on making sure cylinders were not filled beyond their fill date. How the industry goes about doing this should be open to a healthy debate.

I understand there are cylinders that are bar coded so the information appears on a computer to let a filler know the date of manufacture or last recertification. Some industry representatives keep good logs on cylinders that are recertified. These are good, but so far they are not enough to effectively stamp out this meddlesome and recurring problem.

Here is my thought. The summer months, or slow season for the industry, are approaching fast. One of the common projects the industry undertakes during these months is the refurbishing of tanks and cylinders. How about finding the cylinder manufacture or recertification date and using a stencil of 3- or 4-inch numbers to spray paint this most recent date on the side of all cylinders in your possession? This would make this important date more difficult for anyone refilling your cylinders to miss.

Between now and the slow months, have someone go out and visibly inspect all of the cylinders in your yard and make sure they are all within certification. Set aside those that are not and get those that are still usable from a visual-inspection standpoint recertified before they are refilled and distributed to customers.

This simple approach to addressing this refilling oversight will help eliminate a code violation that will be presented to your company in the event of a claim or accident. Since entire claims are often based on this violation, this is a proactive way to avoid future claims and lawsuits that have cost considerable time and expense to resolve.

Another problem is that the exchange and refill of these cylinders is not seen as a big-ticket item, so the average marketer doesn’t usually maintain a customer list. This creates a problem in litigation because our clients often believe they did not exchange or refill the actual cylinder involved in a claim or lawsuit.

Sometimes we believe our clients may have filled or exchanged the involved cylinder when it was within its fill date, but by the time of the accident the date on the cylinder is beyond the allowable fill date.

I recommend that customers who exchange or refill cylinders sign a list at the checkout counter indicating the date they filled or exchanged a cylinder with your company. Keep these records for later reference.

The importance of these records could be substantial at the time a claim or lawsuit is filed. The focus should not be on the cash value of the sale but the cost avoidance of the claim or lawsuit that might occur down the road. Instead of focusing on a roughly $20 sale, think in terms of a potential multimillion dollar claim avoidance. If this is not persuasive, nothing could be.

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