Attorneys Fred Pritzker and Eric Hageman recently won $10 million for a man who was severely burned in a propane explosion. Our client suffered third-degree burns on over 50% of his body, including his entire trunk, hands and arms. He had second-degree burns on his face, neck and legs.
Fred and Eric proved that the company that filled the tank was at fault. Propane is odorized with a compound called ethyl mercaptan, which is added to make it smell like rotten eggs and thereby alert people when there is a leak. Without the ethyl mercaptan, there is no smell.
The lining of the tank can react with the ethyl mercaptan and remove the odor from the LP. For this reason, a new tank should be filled 100%, which prevents the deoderization. The tank that caused our client’s injuries had only been filled 30%.
Unknown to our client, propane gas was leaking out of the tank and filled the air. There was no odor to alert our client to the danger. When he lit a match, the house exploded.
This is the charred remains of a house after an explosion that took the life a beloved parent. Families who lose loved ones have wrongful death claims against the company responsible.
Propane, a hydrocarbon, is generally stored in a tank as a liquid and used as a gas. Because it is stored under pressure, there is a risk of explosion.
LP is flammable when mixed with air (oxygen) and can be ignited by many sources, including open flames, smoking materials, electrical sparks, and static electricity. Its vapors are heavier than air. For this reason, they may accumulate in low-lying areas such as basements, crawl spaces, and ditches, or along floors. However, air currents can sometimes carry propane vapors elsewhere within a building.
Possible causes of propane explosions are:
Failure to take the appropriate measures during refill, including failure to relight appliances for homeowners;
Improper installation of a gas stove, dryer or other gas appliance;
Improper maintenance of a tank, for example, not replacing an old regulator or failing to maintain any part of the system;
Improper inspection of the tank by the gas supplier;
Gas that is not properly odorized with a compound called ethyl mercaptan, which is added according to federal and industry safety requirements so that consumers will know when there is a leak—it smells like rotting cabbage;
Tank leaks; and
Grill fires and explosions.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Odor Fade?
Because propane in its natural state is odorless and undetectable, unodorized LP presents an exceptionally high explosion risk in the event of a leak. To combat this risk, a “stench gas” (ethyl mercaptan) with an instantly-recognizable rotten-egg like odor is added to LP as an odorant.
Maintaining odorant in LP is crucial, so there are basic steps which need to be taken to ensure that odor fade does not occur. In particular, odor fade is known to be a risk in tanks which are new or are not in continuous use. In such situations, ethyl mercaptan in the LP can bind to the interior surface of the tank, decreasing the amount of odorant. If enough odorant is absorbed by the tank surface, the gas again becomes odorless. This is what we alleged happened in this case.
A new tank was delivered to a residence and then allegedly filled to only 30% of capacity. At some point, LP escaped, although the source of the leak has never been determined. By the time it leaked, the gas’s lack of odorant made it undetectable and deprived all those in its vicinity of any warning of its presence. When our client lit a match, he had no idea of the danger he faced due to the presence of odorless LP. As a result, the gas ignited, causing the blast.
Are There Steps That Should be Taken to Prevent Odor Fade?
As any reasonable propane company knows, odor fade is a common risk in new tanks, but two primary precautions can greatly reduce that risk:
purging the tank (which removes moisture); and
filling the tank to the maximum level at the first fill.
Industry-standard educational courses require employers to make it abundantly clear that odor fade presents a substantial risk to consumers which personnel must actively work to prevent.
National Fire Prevention Association publication NFPA 58, the liquefied petroleum gas code, sets for the codes, guidelines, standards and practices applicable to the industry. Many states have statutorily adopted NFPA 58, meaning it is the law in those states. Among other things, NFPA 58 requires that “persons who transfer liquid LP-Gas shall be trained in proper handling and operating procedures.” The industry standard is the National Propane Gas Association’s Certified Employee Training Program (“CETP”).
CETP training begins with the most essential module: Basic Principles and Practices. Nor surprisingly, odor fade is a prominent part of the basic training. In fact, the very first chapter of the first CETP training unit includes odor fade prevention training. And at the bottom of one of the first pages is “Note: It is important to guard against odorant fade in new containers.”