The plaintiffs, a gas leak investigator for NW Natural and a local stylist, suffered physical and mental injuries after an excavator hit a buried natural gas pipeline in Portland’s Northwest District.
The Background of the Pipeline Explosion Case
Plaintiff Eric Rader, the gas leak investigator, detected high levels of natural gas inside a local bagel shop. Rader alerted firefighters on the scene, who evacuated the shop. He also alerted Kristen Prentice, a stylist who was about to enter the salon next door to the bagel shop, just moments before the bagel shop exploded.
Rader and Prentice narrowly avoided being caught in the explosion itself. Both plaintiffs had to find shelter quickly to avoid the flames, smoke, and debris that erupted from the building, however.
At trial, both Rader and Prentice, with their attorneys Greg Kafoury and Mark McDougal of Kafoury & McDougal, presented evidence of hearing loss. Both now suffer pain from exposure to loud noises. Prentice’s post-traumatic stress has also prevented her from working. Additionally, she relies on an assistance animal to help manage her symptoms.
The jury found Loy Clark Pipeline Co. liable for both plaintiffs’ losses. Jurors awarded Rader $6.5 million and Prentice $3.9 million for medical costs, lost wages, and other damages. The awards included $2.3 million apiece for punitive damages as well. However, much of that amount will go to Oregon’s state crime victims fund.
This case isn’t the only one that defendant Loy Clark Pipeline Co. faced in the aftermath of the pipeline explosion. Oregon Live reports that the company faced at least 10 lawsuits related to the incident. Some of these cases were settled out of court. At least two are scheduled for trial in the coming year.
How Experts Played a Critical Role
Defendant Loy Clark Pipeline Co. was responsible for excavation in the Northwest District that day, with the goal of placing a Comcast utility box in the excavated space. During the excavation, Loy Clark employees ruptured a natural gas pipeline. The broken pipeline leaked natural gas into the surrounding area, setting off the explosion that injured Rader, Prentice, and others.
Attorneys for Loy Clark Pipeline Co. deny that their client acted with recklessness or with disregard for the safety of those in the neighborhood that day. At trial, however, a pipeline expert’s testimony told a different story.
The pipeline safety expert testified that four different Loy Clark workers ignored painted indicators showing the buried gas pipeline’s location. The expert also noted that the workers didn’t follow their checklists to avoid an incident like the one that occurred.
“Both the safety manager for Loy Clark and their hired safety expert recoiled when I asked them why the workers didn’t use their common sense,” said Mark McDougal, one of the attorneys for plaintiffs Rader and Prentice.
Key Takeaways for Attorneys
In addition to this case, one other case linked to the pipeline explosion has reached a jury verdict. In that case, the jury also held Loy Clark liable for damages; however, the jury did not award punitive damages.
The expert witness’s testimony in Rader and Prentice’s case provided persuasive support for the jury’s decision to award punitive damages. Here, the expert witness testified that he has reviewed safety protocols at a thousand job sites. He ranked the Loy Clark job site among his top three all-time worst offenders for mistakes made. Property damage costs from the explosion topped $17 million. Furthermore, the incident caused serious injuries and threatened the lives of those in the neighborhood that day.
Informed by the expert’s testimony, “the jury found that the pipeline company was consciously indifferent to the safety of our community,” said attorney Greg Kafoury. After the trial, jurors who spoke to the participating attorneys said they found the evidence in favor of punitive damages “overwhelming.” Choosing the right expert witness can help ensure that a jury’s verdict matches the scale of the damage done.