According to the old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words, but in a recent Fulton County State Court case, a model proved to be worth almost $73 million for a badly injured plaintiff. Stephen Wells v. Aslan Commons, LLC, and WSE, LLC (12EV014728).
The plaintiff in this case, Stephen Wells, was burned over a large portion of his body when the apartment he was entering exploded as a result of a natural gas leak. The accident occurred at the Edgewater Apartments in Sandy Springs on Memorial Day, May 31, 2010. Wells was a tenant at the complex who was in the process of moving from one apartment (906) to another (1703) in the complex over the holiday weekend. Although Wells’s lease for 1703 was not scheduled to begin until June 1, the management company gave him the key early so he could move.
Wells spent the night of May 30 in unit 1703 and then went back to 906 at approximately 9:00 a.m. to gather some of his belongings. According to gas company records, the gas to 1703 was turned on shortly after Wells left the unit. By the time he returned, apartment 1703 had filled with gas. Apparently a spark ignited the gas within seconds after Wells re-entered the unit.
The gas entered the apartment through an open line into the laundry room that was intended to be connected to a gas dryer. The line also had a shutoff valve outside the laundry room that was open on the day of the explosion. When the gas to the unit was turned on that morning, it flowed through the open shutoff valve and out the open line.
After the accident, Wells brought the present law suit against the complex’s owner and the management company. In his complaint, he alleged a number of State of Georgia and City of Sandy Springs Building and Safety Code violations. The primary violation was the failure to install a cap on the open line as required by code. As a separate violation, the shutoff valve was not in the same room as the end of the gas line, as required by code.
By the time the trial began, the defense had acknowledged the fact that the gas line was uncapped when the explosion occurred. However, based on statements Wells had made prior to trial, his attorney Pete Law recognized that the defense would probably contend that Wells himself had left the shutoff valve open and that the jury should take that into account in apportioning fault for the explosion. Wells had stated (and would later testify) that he tried to turn on apartment 1703’s hot water heater earlier in the weekend but could not ignite the pilot light. The defense would suggest that, despite his testimony to the contrary, Wells had mistakenly turned on the dryer shutoff valve to try to get the water heater pilot light to ignite and then left it on.
In his closing statement, defense attorney Y. Kenneth Williams would explain his position to the jury, “If you find that Mr. Wells activated the gas line, the law requires you to apportion some amount of fault… We submit that it’s clear from the evidence that Mr. Wells activated the gas… The facts show that Mr. Wells did contribute to this explosion, and he must be apportioned some amount of fault… [During voir dire], you all unequivocally understood that you don’t have uncapped gas lines … but everybody else also agreed that you just don’t open gas lines that you don’t know where they are, and you don’t walk away from those gas lines.”
Law had his own theory of how the shutoff valve was left open, namely that a maintenance man had done so when he came to unit 1703 that morning in response to a complaint Wells made that the HVAC unit wasn’t working. However, he also did not want the case to turn on the jury’s determination of who turned on the shutoff valve. Instead, his contention, repeated several times during both opening and closing statements, was that it didn’t matter who turned on the valve.
Law knew from the start of the trial that he needed to impress the jury with the severity of the building code violations, that they were not merely technical, but that the provisions in question were designed to prevent the exact type of accident that occurred. Rather than merely rely on witness testimony or photographs showing the layout of unit 1703, Law and his staff built a model showing replicas of the actual pipelines and the walls that blocked the view of someone at the shutoff valve from seeing exactly what line was being opened.
Law wasted no time during his opening argument, assembling and putting the model after display immediately after his preliminary greetings. First he noted the severity of leaving the gas line uncapped, “Can you think of anything more dangerous than having an uncapped gas line? Gas filling an apartment?”
Then he illustrated the layout of the apartment by showing the jury the floor plan. Notably, the hot water heater and furnace were in one closet with the shutoff valve and the laundry room, with its uncapped gas line, was behind a wall, completely hidden from view of someone turning the valve on or off. He then showed the jury the model, with its valve in place and demonstrated how a workman at the valve could not see the end of the dryer line.
Law then explained the significance of the second code violation. “The code says someone might inadvertently turn [the valve] on not knowing where it is, so it’s got to be in the same room. That code violation makes it even more dangerous that they had the code violation that it’s uncapped. You don’t know where it’s going; you can’t see it. There’s walls that go all the way up. And so some guy’s working on the HVAC … and turns it on… But it doesn’t matter… Someone inadvertently turned it on, but the law in its infinite wisdom says ‘people are going to inadvertently turn these things on so keep them in the same room so you know what you’re turning on. Because if it’s not in the same room, you might turn on an appliance you didn’t intend to or turn off an appliance you didn’t intend to.’”
The model remained on display for the jury to observe throughout the entire trial, and law and co-counsel Mike Moran referred to it on a number of occasions. The continuous three-dimensional display of the premises could well have impressed the jury. They place the fault entirely on the defendants in the case and awarded Wells nearly $73 million, including punitive damages and attorney fees.