Terrible tragedies can happen and it is not always someone else’s fault. We make a business out of holding the correct parties responsible under the law; the CORRECT parties, not suing everyone that can be sued. This Court of Appeals opinion is a good example of a lawyer overreaching. If the gas company turns off the gas, puts a tag on the valve that says danger and tells you not to turn it on, you cannot sue them when the handyman you hire turns it on. Period.
In this case, the Georgia Court of Appeals had to determine whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the Atlanta Gas Light Company (“AGL”) in a case involving an explosion at a residence where there had recently been a resumption of natural gas services.
The explosion at issue occurred in November 2010 at a detached apartment located on a residential tract of land that included a main house where the owner of the property lived with his family. Sometime prior to the explosion, the owner had arranged for gas service at both the main house and the apartment to be switched off, since the apartment was unoccupied at the time, and the family did not use gas in the main residence. At some point after having the gas services stopped, the owner agreed to rent the detached apartment to his coworker. In anticipation of his coworker’s residence in the apartment, the property owner contacted AGL about the resumption of gas services.
On October 22, an AGL field representative visited the property. The owner of the property was not home, but an acquaintance of the owner who testified that she was there specifically to meet with the field representative was present. The AGL representative said that during his visit, he gave a “warning card” to the acquaintance, who testified that she did not recall giving the warning card to the property owner but that she may have left it at the property. The representative testified that he left another copy of this warning on the gas meter. After capping a gas line behind the stove and inspecting the furnace in the attic, the representative examined the gas meter. The representative turned on the gas and realized there was a leak in the fuel line or an open line. The representative testified that he went back into the property and determined he did not smell anything. He did not, however, inspect the detached apartment, which he testified he did not know existed. The representative further testified that rather than taking additional steps to determine the location of the leak, he turned the gas off and left the meter in a safe and secure position so that gas would be let out unless the meter was physically turned on by someone else. The representative, however, did not, as required by AGL policy, replace the lock on the meter. The representative then said he left the aforementioned warning card, which stated that the gas should not be turned on until the conditions causing the leak had been corrected. The owner testified that he did not understand that the warning card indicated the existence of the leak, but the card simply indicated he needed to have someone else come by to turn back on the gas completely. The owner then asked a handyman who had performed odd jobs for him in the past to turn the gas on.
On the morning of November 4, the coworker along with a companion came to the apartment to move in some belongings. The coworker testified that he did not smell gas but that the apartment did smell “old,” as it had on his prior visits. While moving items into the apartment, the coworker decided to light some incense sticks to help alleviate the old smell. After the coworker lit his lighter, there was an explosion that set the apartment ablaze. The coworker suffered burns to his hands and face, and his companion also sustained injuries. The coworker and his companion brought suit against AGL, alleging that the negligence of the representative caused the explosion leading to their injuries. Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted the AGL’s representative was negligent in failing to identify the leak, re-lock the gas meter, and warn the owner and the acquaintances with whom he had met of the dangers posed by the leak. The plaintiff also asserted AGL was negligent in its training of its service representatives. Following discovery, AGL moved for summary judgment, which the trial court granted, finding that the intervening conduct of the property owner, his handyman, and his acquaintances broke any causal connection between the AGL conduct and the explosion. The plaintiff then brought this appeal.
Unfortunately for these hapless plaintiffs, the Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment dismissal. It is clear that Georgia law requires a plaintiff in a negligence action to show not only that some conduct by the defendant was the direct cause of the complained-of injury but also that the connection between the defendant’s conduct and the injury sustained is not too remote. Granger v. MST Transp., LLC, 329 Ga. App. 268, 270 (2014). Specifically, if “subsequent[ ] to an original wrongful act, a new cause has intervened, . . . itself sufficient to stand as the cause of the misfortune, the [original wrongful act] must be considered . . . too remote.” Ontario Sewing Mach. Co. v. Smith, 275 Ga. 683, 686 (2002) (citation and punctuation omitted). Intervening conduct will, however, not preclude such a finding of proximate cause if the intervening conduct was a “probable or natural consequence [that] could reasonably have been anticipated, apprehended, or foreseen” by the original wrongful party. Id.
In this case, the Court of Appeals found that there was insufficient evidence to establish proximate cause. Indeed, the court reasoned that even if the field representative acted negligently by not relocking the gas meter, it was the subsequent actions of the homeowner in failing to properly appraise the warnings left at the residence and hiring a handyman to turn the gas on that were the actual cause of the explosion. Moreover, it was not foreseeable to the defendant that the home owner would engage in this conduct, which clearly was inconsistent with the specific warnings received. See, e.g., Stegall v. Cent. Ga. Elec. Membership Corp., 221 Ga. App. 187 (1996) (holding that a minor’s electrocution was not proximately caused by the acts of a service technician who inspected a malfunctioning circuit breaker at the property because the subsequent acts of the plaintiff’s landlord and third parties, in conflict with detailed warnings from the technician, led to the breaker being reactivated). In addition, although the plaintiffs also argued that the warning left for the property owner in this case was inadequate, the Court of Appeals found that the substance of the notice, which included the word “danger” and conveyed the potential risk of a gas leak, was substantively adequate, in light of the obvious nature of dangers posed by gas leaks. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment.
These plaintiffs, may still have viable claims against the property owner and handyman. If you’ve recently been injured as a result of possible negligence and are curious about your legal options, the Atlanta personal injury attorneys at the Simon Law Firm are ready to help you assess the merits of your case. If you are interested, do not hesitate to contact us and schedule a complimentary case consultation.