Natural gas is a dangerous commodity and a distributor of natural gas is required to exercise a high degree of care and diligence to prevent injury and damage to the public from the escape of gas from its lines[i]. The duty to use due care which a distributor of natural gas owes to the public is a continuing one and cannot be delegated to another. If a gas company has notice of defects in gas lines, pipes or customers’ appliances that are dangerous to human health and safety, it has a duty to repair the defects or shut off the gas until repairs are made[ii].
Generally, a gas company is guilty of negligence if a leak in a customer’s pipes and appliances causes injury to persons or property[iii]. Similarly, when gas is first turned on by a gas company, it must exercise care as to the condition of the property owner’s own pipes and connections[iv].
It is to be noted that when a gas company has exclusive use of a pipe line, the company assumes the duty of reasonable inspection and maintenance of the line while it is so used[v]. If a gas company has notice of defects in gas lines, pipes or customers’ appliances, which are dangerous to human health and safety, it has a duty to repair the defects or shut off the gas until repairs are made[vi].
Generally, a gas company that does not install or maintain gas lines in its customer’s premises and is not responsible for their maintenance will not be liable for injuries caused by leaks in the lines of which it has no knowledge[vii]. Similarly, once the gas is turned on, the gas company has no duty to inspect the customer’s gas lines in the absence notice of a leak in those lines. However, before turning the gas on, the gas company must make sure the gas lines are safe[viii]. Accumulation and use of combustible gas for a private purpose is an abnormally dangerous activity that gives rise to strict liability without a showing of negligence for any injury proximately caused by such activity[ix].
It is to be noted that a gas company must install pipes and fittings of good material and workmanship with skill and care, and it must inspect its pipes and promptly repair them when they become unsound. However, while a gas company can be held to have a duty to keep the pipe in which its gas is stored in good condition, it cannot be required to make an inspection of the premises to determine whether they are kept in safe condition without any knowledge that they may be a source of danger[x].
Similarly, a gas company is bound to inspect for discovery of leaks due to defects in materials, deterioration of pipes and valves, displacement or dislocation by accident, and weather. When a gas company has the exclusive use of a pipe line, the company assumes the duty of reasonable inspection and maintenance of the line while it is so used[xi].
Likewise, generally, a seller or distributor of liquid or bottled fuel gas must use a degree of care to prevent the escape of such gas from its pipes and containers that can result in danger and if it fails to exercise such degree of care, and injury results, then it is liable for damages suffered. It is to be noted that strict liability is available as a remedy against a seller of propane who furnishes a tank or other equipment to a user and damages results from a defect in the tank where furnishing the tank or equipment is an incident of and partial consideration for the sale.
In the absence of a malice or reckless disregard for a gas station operator’s safety, a supplier or distributor cannot be held liable for punitive damages in an operator’s action, if the operator was injured by an exploding propane tank that s/he was filling for a customer[xii].
If gas pipes and fittings are the property of a consumer and there is no contractual duty resting on the gas company to inspect, then the consumer, assumes the burden of inspecting and maintaining the pipes and fittings on his/her premises in a manner reasonably suited to meet the required service. Moreover, the company has the right to assume that these duties have been performed by the applicant[xiii].
Similarly, if a person knows that gas is escaping into his/her home from the main of a gas company, it is the duty of that person to take suitable precautions for his/her safety[xiv]. In an action for personal injury, death, or property damage that results from the alleged negligent installation, repair, or servicing of a gas-burning appliance, the rule is that contributory negligence on the part of the plaintiff or his/her decedent precludes recovery.
[i] Foster v. City of Keyser, 202 W. Va. 1 (W. Va. 1997).
[iii] Bellefuil v. Willmar Gas Co., 243 Minn. 123 (Minn. 1954).
[iv] Ambriz v. Petrolane, Ltd., 49 Cal. 2d 470 (Cal. 1957).
[v] Foster v. City of Keyser, 202 W. Va. 1 (W. Va. 1997).
[vii] Salazar v. S. Cal. Gas Co., 54 Cal. App. 4th 1370 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 1997).
[ix] Foster v. City of Keyser, 202 W. Va. 1 (W. Va. 1997).
[x] Shaw v. Wisconsin Power & Light Co., 256 Wis. 176 (Wis. 1949).
[xi] Foster v. City of Keyser, 202 W. Va. 1 (W. Va. 1997).
[xii] Robles v. Shoreside Petroleum, 29 P.3d 838 (Alaska 2001).
[xiii] Reeder v. W. Gas & Power Co., 42 Wn.2d 542 (Wash. 1953).
[xiv] Gray v. Enserch, Inc., 665 S.W.2d 601 (Tex. App. Fort Worth 1984).