An appeals court in California affirmed a nearly $7 million jury verdict in favor of a worker who sustained third-degree burns four years ago while examining swimming pool equipment under construction. The equipment exploded due to a build-up of propane in the underground vault, which was not appropriately ventilated.
Authorities investigating the accident later determined that the propane line that was used to heat the pool ignited while plaintiff, working for a subcontractor, was examining the equipment. The home construction project was being overseen by the owner of the property, a licensed concrete subcontractor who was building his wife’s “dream home.” He was acting as the general contractor on the construction of his own home – including the installation of the pool equipment.
Acting as the general contractor of the project, the property owner/ defendant obtained all the permits for construction and also served as the person responsible for construction. He did the concrete work himself and then hired licensed subcontractors to finish the other work. He was on the site every day, tracking the progress, asking when subcontractors were finished with each job so that he could have inspectors approve it.
Part of this project included a pool and spa. He wanted to cut down on the noise of the equipment, so he requested the pool equipment be stored in an underground vault. He’d seen this done on other home projects. The vault had a hole at the top for ingress and egress. He hired a plumbing contractor to run propane lines to the house and backyard. The plumber didn’t obtain the permits for this, the property owner did. The contractor couldn’t recall specifically if it had warned the property owner about the danger of using propane, but it was standard practice to do so, particularly if propane was being used in a vault.
About one year after the vault was installed, defendant hired plaintiff’s employer to build the pool and spa. Defendant was friends with the owner of the company, and the pair had worked together extensively. Defendant was unaware that propane-fueled heaters shouldn’t be installed in an underground vault because of the safety risk.
Defendant built a shell for the pool and spa, finished the plumbing and bought a natural gas heater for the pool and a kit that would convert it to propane. Defendant obtained permits for this work, but he didn’t have anyone from the county come to inspect the vault. There was conflicting evidence as to whether this was necessary.
In the course of doing the work, plaintiff was examining the equipment when the explosion occurred. Plaintiff suffered severe, third-degree burns. He was air-lifted to a burn center, where he stayed for six weeks and underwent numerous surgeries.
Plaintiff sued defendant in Regalado v. Callaghan for negligence and premises liability. He asserted defendant negligently installed the underground vault with a propane heater that wasn’t properly ventilated. Defendant knew or should have known this was dangerous, plaintiff alleges. At trial, plaintiff argued defendant was liable because plaintiff retained control over the entire project by submitting all the plans, pulling all the permits, arranging all the inspections and and furnishing the vault and propane lines.
Jurors awarded $160,000 in previous economic damages, $426,000 in future economic damages, $2 million in prior non-economic harm and $4 million for future non-economic harm. Jurors assigned defendant 40 percent liability (55 percent liability was pinned on plaintiff’s employer, who would be protected under workers’ compensation laws). That meant defendant had to pay $3 million.
Although he appealed, the California Fourth Appellate District, Division One, affirmed this ruling.
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Regalado v. Callaghan , Sept. 16, 2016, California Fourth Appellate District, Division One
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