- In September 2010, a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California
- Mishaps often happen when it comes to making or delivering the resources we need and use each day
- Generally, those who cause a man-made disaster, like the gas explosion, are legally responsible for the damage caused
- Know what to do before, during, and after a man-made disaster to protect you and you family
Natural gas, electric power grids, fresh water lines, oil. These are a few of the resources we need and rely on each and every day. Sometimes things go wrong when these resources are being made or delivered to us. Who's responsible when it does?
In the early evening of September 9, 2010, a neighborhood in San Bruno, California was rocked by the explosion of a natural gas pipeline. The blast, and the fire that followed, killed at least four people - skeletal remains have been recovered but haven't been connected to the explosion yet. In addition, about 60 people were injured, and about 40 homes were destroyed and many more were damaged.
By the early morning of September 12, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the utility company that owns the pipeline, had made repairs and was finishing up work on restoring power to homes in the neighborhood.
As a general rule, utility companies like PG&E and others who work to make or deliver the resources we need and rely on have a duty to keep the general public safe. Utility companies need to make sure their gas pipelines don't leak, or their power lines are secure. Oil companies need to make sure their drilling operations are safe for their employees, the public, and the environment.
When something terrible like the gas explosion happens, the question usually comes down to why it happened. If it was an "act of god," like a hurricane or earthquake, then the company typically isn't legally responsible for the damages caused by the failure or explosion of its pipes, power lines, etc. That is, unless the company didn't follow state or federal regulations on making their equipment strong enough to withstand certain levels of stress - like "earthquake resistant" buildings.
If, on the other hand, the company did something wrong or didn't do something it was supposed to do - that is, it was negligent - then the company likely is legally liable for the damage. For instance, there are reports that residents complained to PG&E about the smell of natural gas several days before the explosion. It also appears PG&E knew there was a good chance the pipeline that exploded would in fact fail.
If this is true, PG&E can't escape liability for putting lives in danger - it knew of the danger and didn't act, or didn't act quickly enough, to eliminate the danger. It may face lawsuits for wrongful death, personal injuries, and property damage.
It should be noted that PG&E has been ordered by the state's Public Utilities Commission to check all of its gas pipelines and that the company has established a fund for community-based aid and recovery.
What You Can Do
There are things you can do before, during, and after a disaster like the San Bruno gas explosion to protect yourself and your family.
- Review your property insurance or homeowner's policy at least once per year to make sure you have enough coverage
- Talk your insurance agent about disasters that are or aren't covered by your policy and whether you can get additional coverage
- Report suspicious odors and noises to immediately. Call the company or 9-1-1
- If you think a company is operating unsafely, contact the state agency in charge of regulating the company's operations, such as your public utilities commission
- Get out of the house and get as far away as possible from the area
- Get medical attention immediately if you or a family member is hurt or feeling ill. Notify authorities if you see someone injured
- Let fire fighters and other first responders do their jobs
- Don't return to your home until the authorities say it's safe
- Don't try to restore power or light pilot lights until your house has been inspected and you're told it's safe to do so
- Don't enter your home if you notice serious structural damage, like cracks in the foundation or a sagging roof
- Take photographs of any damage and make an inventory of any lost or destroyed property, and call your insurance agent
- If your home was destroyed or isn't habitable, contact your local Red Cross or department of health
- If you or loved one is hurt and you think someone is at fault, contact an attorney immediately
Yes, we need resources like natural gas, electricity, water, and oil, and we're willing to pay for them. The price, however, shouldn't include our personal safety.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I've complained about the smell of natural gas several times but the energy company hasn't done anything to investigate. What should I do now?
- Am I liable for damage caused to my neighbor's house by a fire at my house?
- Is a utility company liable for my increased premiums for homeowner's insurance if the damage was the company's fault?