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COA split over company’s duty following propane accident

June 24, 2015

The Indiana Court of Appeals was divided Tuesday over whether a company that supplied a propane tank which was hooked up to a mobile home without the company’s permission owed a duty to a couple injured after an explosion in that home.

Lois Mauck and Ralph Thomas rented a mobile home in Washington County that was previously rented by Jesse Middleton. Middleton contracted with Empire Gas for the company to provide propane gas to the property. After he passed away, the tank, which was nearly half full, remained on the property, but it was disconnected from the mobile home, locked and contained a warning against removing the lock.

In the fall of 2011, Thomas and Mauck returned home to find that the propane tank had been hooked up by someone to their mobile home. They never contacted the company hook up the tank. They turned on the furnace and smelled some gas. About three hours later, after Mauck lit a cigarette, the trailer exploded. She was severely injured in the accident.

The tenants sued Empire Gas, asserting product liability claims of negligence, strict liability and breach of warranties. The trial court denied Empire Gas’ motion for summary judgment.

In Heritage Operating, L.P. d/b/a Empire Gas v. Lois A. Mauck and Ralph Thomas 88A01-1410-CT-440, the appeals court found Empire Gas is entitled to summary judgment on the tenants’ claim of strict liability because the undisputed material facts show that Empire Gas is not a manufacturer of propane. But the judges were divided on whether the company is entitled to summary judgment on the negligence claim.

Judge Patricia Riley, writing the lead opinion in which Chief Judge Vaidik concurred in result, found that the company is not entitled to summary judgment on this issue because a gas company owes a common law duty of reasonable care in the distribution of its product.

Judge John Baker dissented on this matter, writing that the gas company didn’t even know the property had tenants and the gas line was hooked up by an unauthorized third party. As a result, Empire Gas owed the plaintiffs no duty.
 

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