Take precautions to avoid not-at-fault accidents

January 10, 2013 By    

It is always sad when bad things happen to good propane companies.

A propane marketer has his hands full with duty to warn, customer relations, OSHA, DOT and NFPA compliance coordination and training issues – all the while trying to make budget numbers and hopefully a profit.

The last thing a marketer needs is an expensive not-at-fault accident that impacts his insurance rates and damages the company’s bottom line.

Uninsured drivers take their toll

Twice last year, I read stories about marketers having not-at-fault accidents resulting in a total loss of a bulk truck. In both incidents, the other driver was at fault and had little or no insurance.

Roads were blocked, towns evacuated and businesses were shut down as a result of uninsured driver negligence. In addition, the propane marketers lost the use of their trucks for a period of time until the claim was settled and the replacement vehicle was purchased.

The cost of these not-at-fault accidents can really add up. Who will pay? Who has the money? What could the propane truck driver have done to prevent being in this position?

While not all accidents are preventable, I have always been an advocate of defensive driving.

I remember one time making a left turn, thinking the other car coming from the left was turning. In fact, he wasn’t but slowed down to let me through. As I rolled by, he said loudly through his open window: “Don’t worry, I’ll look out for you.”

While it may be impossible to avoid a drunken driver who swerves into your lane, it may be a good idea to “look out for him” just the same. Paying attention to road space and conditions or keeping an eye out for drivers who stray can in fact prevent many accidents.

Do your drivers sit back and let the road world come at them or do they look out for other drivers? This might be a good topic for your next safety meeting.

Untrained contractors and do-it-yourselfers can hurt your bottom line

While you can’t control the actions of contractors hired by your residential customers or be there to watch every do-it-yourself project, it makes sense to review your customer communications about such situations.

A recent Iowa jury verdict assessed 40 percent of fault to the propane distributor in a home explosion case in which a woman suffered second- and third-degree burns. The award of $656,954 plus expenses may have run into at least $1 million.

Allegations against the marketer of failure to warn and odor fade successfully convinced a jury that negligence was involved, but a plumber who over tightened a flare nut after severing and fixing a gas line while installing plastic sewage piping also received blame in the case.

The plaintiff’s attorneys:

• Argued that simply providing a safety brochure fails to adequately warn.

• Argued that if the propane distributor believed that gas detectors were recommended they should have provided them to the customer and not delivered propane unless the customer had them.

• Generated much jury sympathy about the painful treatment the victim underwent for her burn injuries.

Clearly, current code requirements do not mandate such extremes in customer communication. No energy industry, to my knowledge, has such stringent and unrealistic expectations, yet plaintiff’s attorneys seem to have exploited an Achilles heel in a propane marketer’s defense.

While this situation appears unfair – life is not always fair. So we have to make a concerted and believable effort to stress safety to customers when contractors, do-it-yourselfers and attorneys allege in bad faith. I advise that you:

• Have a gas system check with a documented leak check and provide various forms of warning to customers.

• Make those messages clear and memorable to prevent accidents and provide a reasonable defense from unfounded allegations.

• Warn customers about line locations and the importance of code compliance when they have outside contractors working with or near the propane system.

I have spent a great deal of my 40-year career helping and encouraging propane marketers to be proactive when it comes to safety. This will surely prevent and eliminate potential accidents.

If you stick your head in the sand, fail to act and hope for good luck, well, that’s when bad things usually happen to good propane companies.

Jay Johnston (www.thesafetyleader.com) is an independent insurance agent, business consultant, and safety leadership coach and keynote speaker. He can be reached at 952-935-5350 or jay@thesafetyleader.com.

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