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Punitive damage awards play an important role in changing company behavior.

Following a two-week trial, a jury in Henry County awarded the widow of a worker who died in a propane explosion $6 million in damages. The worker suffered a severe burn in the accident and died several days later.

Christopher H. Morris and A. Neal Herrington, of Hargadon, Lenihan & Herrington, represented the widow in a wrongful death lawsuit against several parties, including the employer and Southern States Cooperative, Inc., the supplier of the propane tank. While the other parties reached a settlement, Southern States contested any liability.

A Preventable Explosion

When the plant ran out of propane, the worker called Southern States to fill an order. Southern States answering machine said that propane outages were an emergency and would be dealt with immediately. The worker along with another plant manager worried about other workers losing two days of work due to the propane shortage. They went to the manager’s home and transported a 100-pound propane cylinder from his home to the plant in the back of a pickup. Damage during the transport likely caused a leak to a valve and the propane tank exploded.

Mr. Herrington and Mr. Morris developed the “four rules of propane suppliers.” Those four rules related to customer records and responsiveness. It was reasonable that the company would keep records on customers, the location of cylinders, ensure proper warning labels and update out-of-date cylinders. If the rules were followed, the accident would not likely of happened.

The company did not have sufficient and adequate records. It did not have enough cylinders to exchange the out-of-date cylinder with a newer model with a collared valve, which would have eliminated the risk of a leak. No warning appeared on the cylinder to caution customers from transporting the cylinders in anything but an upright position. Even a recertification examination of the cylinder would have resulted in a fitted collared valve.

At the conclusion of the trial, jurors were asked to determine whether Southern States had exercised “ordinary care” as a propane supplier even though it had not answered its emergency phone line, it failed to keep customer records and collect tanks not used within a year.

The jury divided fault between Southern States, the employer and the manager. They decided that Southern States was 40 percent liable for the accident and required the company pay approximately $6 million to the widow to cover lost earning potential, the loss of her love, affection and services of her husband, his pain and suffering along with punitive damages

Punitive Damages

The plaintiff requested a maximum of $5 million in punitive damages to send a message that companies, such as Southern States, needed to worry about protecting the communities where they do business.

When a jury decides that punitive damages are warranted, Kentucky statutes and law lay out several considerations:

  • Likelihood that serious harm would arise from the misconduct
  • A defendant’s degree of awareness about the issue
  • Profitability from misconduct
  • Duration of misconduct and any concealment

The jury found the company acted with reckless disregard to the public, and awarded $3 million in punitive damages.

When you or a loved one suffers a serious injury in an accident, it may be hard to uncover that negligence or misconduct was at fault. Speak with an experienced personal injury at Hargadon, Lenihan & Herrington who can review the individual facts of your case and discuss possible remedies.

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