New trial ordered in suit over deadly propane explosion

An appellate panel has ordered a new trial in a negligence case arising after a propane tank explosion killed two people in Clinton County. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that admission of a verbatim hearsay opinion read into evidence by a defense expert witness was prejudicial to the deceased couple’s estate. 

Just two days after a Wright Hardware Co., Inc. delivered propane gas to a tank at Charles and Linda Benefiel’s property, an explosion occurred. The explosion caused a fire, killing the Benefiels.

Prior to the explosion, the Benefiels had contacted Wright Hardware because they had no heat in their home. When an employee came to the property to inspect, he discovered that the control board and gas valve were no longer functioning and replaced both components.

After shutting off the gas to the furnace, replacing the piping and reassembling it, the employee conducted a series of tests that did not include a leak test. Upon not finding any leaks, the employee turned the gas on to cycle through the home’s furnace a few times.

Following the explosion, various experts investigated the cause of the explosion and fire. However, the explosion’s magnitude made it impossible to ascertain the source of the leak, the ignition incident, or actual cause of the explosion. Nevertheless, experts agreed that the explosion had been caused by propane gas of undetermined origin, and although the source of the leak could not be isolated, the leak had originated inside the house.

The Estate of Charles D. Benefiel and the Estate of Linda D. Benefiel, both by and through Co-Personal Representatives, Michael D. Benefiel and Andrea D. Kessner, sued for damages on a negligence claim against Wright Hardware. Specifically, its theory of liability focused on Wright Hardware’s failure to perform leak testing after the control board and valve were replaced.

That work, it alleged, constituted an interruption of service that required leak testing pursuant to the relevant provisions of the Indiana Fuel Gas Code. But an expert for Wright Hardware informed the jury that leak testing was not necessary because no interruption of service had occurred. To support his opinion, the expert posed questions regarding the definition of “interruption of service” to the International Code Council, which drafted the IFGC.

Wright Hardware’s expert was permitted to read verbatim into evidence his first question and only the first sentence of the ICC employee’s response that defined interruption of service as “the utility has shut off the supply at the point of delivery, or an onsite fuel tank has been depleted.” It was also permitted to read two other questions, but not the ICC’s responses.

When a jury verdict was entered in Wright Hardware’s favor, the estate appealed, arguing that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the ICC employee’s opinion of the meaning of interruption of service.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed, finding the trial court’s admission of the verbatim hearsay opinion was prejudicial to the estate and amounted to reversible error in The Estate of Charles D. Benefiel, by and through its Co-Personal Representatives, Michael D. Benefiel and Andrea D. Kessner, et al. v. Wright Hardware Co., Inc., 18A-CT-2527.

The appellate court found that because the ICC employee presented his own non-binding interpretation of a legal term within the context of the ICC and did not interpret the term within the context and revisions of the Indiana Code, his opinion could not reasonably be relied upon by Wright Hardware’s expert.

“Moreover the admission of the verbatim definition was prejudicial to the Estate and constituted reversible error,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the panel. “Viewed in the totality of the trial proceedings, (Wright Hardware expert Todd) Hetrick’s testimony in essence amounted to nothing more than a mere conduit to get otherwise inadmissible hearsay evidence in front of the jury.”

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