Generally, the Law imposes the duty to use reasonable care with regard to utilities engaged in the distribution of gas. Likewise, a gas company owes a duty to use reasonable care in operating its service lines so as to prevent injury to the health or property of others by the escape of gas[i].
While discussing the duty owed by gas company the court in Salazar v. S. Cal. Gas Co., 54 Cal. App. 4th 1370 (Cal. Ct. App. 1997), observed that “Gas Companies as manufacturers and distributors of a highly explosive and inflammable substance, possess technical knowledge of the dangers to be guarded against in handling or installing gas appliances for illuminating and commercial purposes far beyond the knowledge possessed by the average person. It would appear to be the duty of a gas company to make some inquiry or investigation to satisfy itself that all openings in the house pipes are closed at the time it turns on its meters.”
A gas company which has knowledge at the time it turns on the gas, or, which becomes aware after turning on the gas about the defects or leak in the pipes is under a duty to make such an inspection or investigation as a person of ordinary care and prudence would conduct to ascertain the safety of the pipes before furnishing or continue to furnishing gas through pipes[ii]. If such gas company fails to conduct the inspection and furnishes or continues to furnish gas through the pipes, it does so at its own risk and becomes liable for injury caused to any person in the building who is without fault[iii].
In Consolidated Gas Co. v. Connor, 114 Md. 140 (Md. 1910), the court observed that “it is for a jury to say as a matter of fact, and, therefore, not for a court to determine as a matter of law, whether an inspection which failed to discover what other persons in the same situation as was the inspector were aware of was a due and reasonable inspection.”
Generally, the duty to exercise reasonable diligence to inspect or shut off the gas supply is measured by the likelihood of injury. Sometimes, the circumstances may demand an immediate inquiry and to shut off the gas supply until repairs are made. The nature of the notice may also affect the extent of inspection necessary.
The ‘knowledge’ that would impose a duty upon the gas company is not limited to actual knowledge; it may also include constructive knowledge or notice. Hence, it is sufficient if the gas company received knowledge of the facts that would make the defects known to an ordinary prudent person[iv]. For instance, gas companies who had notice of the danger caused by sulfides in their gas coming in contact with brazed connectors owe common law tort duties.
However, the duty to exercise reasonable care exits only during the time the gas is in the company’s own pipes. Once the gas is turned on, the gas company will have no duty to inspect the customer’s gas lines in the absence of notice of leakage in those lines. But, before turning the gas on, the gas company must make sure that the gas lines are safe[v]. Therefore, a gas company which merely furnishes gas for appliances on private property owned and controlled by the owner or occupant of the premises is not liable to the owner or occupant or to third persons on the premises for injuries caused by defective conditions in the gas appliances. But, if the gas company supplies with actual knowledge that the customer’s appliances are defective and dangerous condition the gas company will be made liable for injuries caused by the use of such defective and dangerous appliances[vi].
In practice, a gas company is generally held responsible for a high degree of accountability for the maintenance and condition of its own wires or pipes. A gas company will be charged with knowledge of defects or leak as a matter of law[vii]. Likewise, a gas company will owe a duty to make the line to be repaired by the person whose duty it is to do so or must shut off the gas at the street, if they had knowledge about the rust or corrosion in the service line, irrespective of the fact originally that they had no duty to repair or maintain the service line[viii].
The duty of a gas company to use due care is a continuing one and it cannot be delegated to another person. In Clay v. Butane Gas Corp., 151 Neb. 876 (Neb. 1949) the court observed that “the law imposes a duty on a gas company as follows. Natural gas is a dangerous agency. Its distribution is accompanied by many possible dangerous consequences, and a higher degree of care and vigilance is required in dealing with such agency than is required in the ordinary affairs of life. A degree of care commensurate to the danger involved is required of a distributor of natural gas to avoid injury and damage and, in case of failure to exercise such care, and injury results, it is liable. The rule so announced applies to a gas such as butane gas or other manufactured liquefied gases of the same character or kind. It is also the rule that a company engaged in the transportation and delivery of a dangerous fuel commodity such as natural gas must have employees efficient in their line, and it is bound to anticipate injuries resulting from the use of such commodity.”
[i] Yellow Pine Paper Mill Co. v. Wright, 154 S.W. 1168 (Tex. Civ. App. 1913).
[ii] Miller v. Gas Service Co., 155 Kan. 829 (Kan. 1942).
[iii] Blassingame v. Lone Star Gas Co., 236 S.W.2d 526 (Tex. Civ. App. 1950).
[iv] Trimbo v. Minnesota Valley Natural Gas Co., 260 Minn. 386 (Minn. 1961).
[v] Reeder v. W. Gas & Power Co., 42 Wn.2d 542 (Wash. 1953).
[vi] Milligan v. Georgia Power Co., 68 Ga. App. 269 (Ga. Ct. App. 1942).
[vii] Webb v. Louisiana Power & Light Co., 199 So. 451 (La.App. 1940).
[viii] Clare v. Bond County Gas Co., 267 Ill. App. 437 (Ill. App. Ct. 1932).