Attorneys listen as the judge reads the verdict awarding over $65 million to an apartment complex tenant severely burned in a gas line explosion in his unit.
Editor's update: A previous version of this story listed the damage verdict alone, without attorney fees, in the headline. The headline has been updated to reflect the total award, including damages and attorney fees.
Atlanta, GA–Jurors today awarded a total of $72.97 million to an apartment complex tenant severely burned when an uncapped gas line in his apartment exploded. Stephen Wells v. Aslan Commons, LLC et al 12EV014728.
The verdict, which found the defendants, property owner Aslan Commons and management company WSE LLC 100 percent responsible, includes $17.9 million in compensatory damages as well as $47.9 million in punitive damages. Jurors also awarded $7.16 million in attorney’s fees.
The explosion occurred when Wells, a resident of The Edgewater Apartments in Sandy Springs, was moving his belongings from one apartment in the complex to another over Memorial Day weekend in 2010. The explosion, which occurred in the new apartment, burned over half of Wells’ body.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Wells described the explosion, which occurred shortly after he entered his new apartment, which had filled with gas. “I heard kind of a ‘ch ch’ noise like something was igniting, and following that I heard a big boom and a huge ball of fire came out from the hallway and … it went past me and that’s when I was burned.”
Describing his reaction to jurors, Wells said “I turned around and boom. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I went outside the door and lay down, collapsed, whatever, on the grass outside the apartment and people ran up.”
During opening statements Tuesday, Wells’ attorney, Peter Law, said that the defendants were negligent, “most simply, most clearly by failing to have a cap on their own gas line. As stipulated, they had a responsibility to do this; this had to be capped. This is the safety magnet. You cap this, nothing happens. I should sit down because the case is as clear as it gets … Can you think of anything more dangerous than having an uncapped gas line, gas filling an apartment?”
The apartment’s gas line was intended to support a natural gas-powered dryer. However, Wells, who had an electric dryer, claimed he was unaware of the gas line’s existence. Gas had not flowed through the line while the apartment was vacant because a shutoff valve in the apartment’s furnace closet was turned off. According to gas company records the valve was turned on, allowing gas to flow into the apartment. The explosion occurred about two hours later when Wells entered the apartment.
Who actually turned on the gas line valve was a central point of dispute in the case. Wells testified that he spent the night before the explosion in the new apartment and that a maintenance man entered the apartment shortly before the gas was turned on. Wells added that he was not surprised to see the man because he had called the apartment manager previously to report a problem with the air conditioning in the new unit.
Law told jurors that, regardless of whether or not a maintenance man left the shutoff valve open, the defendants were negligent for failing to cap the line as required by building code, and for not having the shutoff valve in the same room as the dryer, another code violation. Law also noted that 57 other units in the complex lacked valve caps on their dryer lines. Further, the apartment complex had failed to respond to a phone call reporting a gas smell near Wells’ apartment 36 minutes before the explosion.
However, defense attorney Y. Kenneth Williams argued that Wells was contributorily negligent in the accident. Williams acknowledged in his opening statement that Wells’ new apartment, as well as others in the complex, had uncapped gas lines, but said that gas would not flow into the apartment unless the shutoff valve was left open as well.
During opening statements, Williams suggested that Wells himself had turned on the shutoff valve during an unsuccessful effort to light the apartment’s hot water heater and neglected to turn it off before leaving the unit. Williams pointed out that Wells never mentioned the existence of a maintenance man working in his unit until months later, after legal proceedings commenced. Williams also contended that Wells had given a written statement admitting that he had tried to light the water heater on the morning of the explosion.
Williams told the jury, “You’re going to have to decide whether or not some maintenance man that has come up late in this case came in there and intentionally turned on the valve that did not work to the hot water heater and left it.”
Attorneys involved in the case include Peter Law of Atlanta's Law & Moran representing the plaintiff and Y. Kevin Williams of the firm of Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial of Atlanta for the defense.
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