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Andreoli v. Natural Gas Co.

Decided: October 13, 1959.


Goldmann, Freund and Haneman. The opinion of the court was delivered by Goldmann, S.j.a.d.


Plaintiffs sued to recover damages for injuries resulting from a gas explosion in the cellar of a home owned by Michael S. Andreoli's parents, who are the third-party defendants. They allege that defendant Natural Gas Company (predecessor of Suburban Propane Gas Corp., which took over its assets and liabilities upon dissolution) had installed a hot water heater in the cellar in a negligent manner, not in conformity with the standards of practice for safety in the installation of a heater using propane gas, and in a place where there was dampness and no ventilation. The Law Division granted defendants' motion for involuntary dismissal at the close of plaintiffs' case and entered the accordant judgment from which plaintiffs appeal.

Plaintiffs Michael Andreoli, his wife and 12-year-old daughter visited the home of his parents, James and Frances Andreoli, on October 6, 1957. After Michael had helped fix a door, his father asked him to go down into the cellar to remove some planking because he planned to concrete the floor later on. The "cellar" is actually a pit below the pantry in the back of the house, measuring approximately 6'3" high, 6'4" wide, and 11'4" long. It has a dirt floor and contains the water heater and a sump pump. Some distance above the floor level there is a crawl space 1 1/2' high and 8' wide, extending under part of the rest of the house. The pit is reached by opening the trap door in the pantry floor and descending a very steep set of steps. Michael went down these steps and, not being able to find the pull string for the electric light, lit a match. There was an explosion, his clothes caught fire, and he ran upstairs and

out-of-doors. The blast also burned his wife and daughter, who at that moment were in the pantry close to the top of the steps.

The Natural Gas Company had installed the heater in the cellar pit in 1951, connecting it by tubing to the propane gas supply in tanks in back of the house. The heater had operated satisfactorily until a storm some three or four months before the accident. The storm had flooded the cellar and put out the pilot light. A flue ran through the heater from the burner at the base to the top. The heater had been installed without a vent or draft hood leading to the outside or to a chimney. Its rating was 15,000 BTUs per hour. There was no ventilation or cross-ventilation in any part of the pit or crawl space: the only opening into the pit was the trap door in the pantry.

Propane gas has a specific gravity 1 1/2 times that of air. It is odorless, flammable and explosive. The propane gas used by the Andreolis was infused with a small amount of ethyl mercaptan, which produces a strong and characteristic odor, described by one of the witnesses as "between cabbage and onions."

Plaintiff Michael Andreoli testified to the events leading up to the explosion and its aftermath. He said he smelled nothing unusual when he entered the cellar. The father, James, said he had never attempted to light the burner after the storm waters extinguished the pilot light, and no one but he had gone down into the pit following the flood. He had not smelled gas prior to or on the day of the explosion. He admitted that nothing had been done to notify the gas company that the heater had ceased to operate. His wife said she had not smelled gas until a company representative came to the home following the accident and ran an odor test on the kitchen gas range.

Plaintiffs produced as witnesses State Troopers Schomp and Cusick, who testified that after the accident they removed the heater control, a device known as "Unitrol," and took it to defendants' workshop where it was disassembled.

Before making this examination, however, they ran a gas leak test and found that the unit leaked. The dial was between "pilot" and "on," and difficult to move. When the unit was taken apart the controls were found to be very much rusted and corroded, and the lower portion filled with water and rust. Schomp testified that in his opinion the rust and corrosion affected certain parts of the controls in such a way as to cause a gas leak. He said there was no odor of gas in the basement on October 8, 1957, two days after the accident, when he, Cusick and a company representative went there. An odor test conducted in the kitchen upstairs showed that the propane gas had been odorized; there was no difficulty in smelling it. After the rust and corrosion were cleaned away, the control valve returned to its regular seat and the pilot light worked properly.

Schomp also testified that the State Police had promulgated rules and regulations concerning the utilization of liquified petroleum gas and that these conformed to the standards recommended by the National Board of Fire Underwriters. The rules and regulations had been in effect in 1951 and thereafter. They were received in evidence, as was Pamphlet No. 52, issued by the National Fire Protective Association (referred to as the Board of Fire Underwriters) and bearing the title "Liquified Petroleum Gas Piping and Appliance Installations in Buildings."

Lawrence Brenner, an expert in the installation of gas hot water heaters, testified for plaintiffs. His qualifications were not challenged. He had examined the Andreoli heater and the pit where it was located. It was his unqualified opinion that the heater did not conform to the common standard used in the installation of that type of equipment because the pit was not adequately vented, the heater not connected to a chimney, and there was no hood on the unit. He said it was common standard practice in the year 1951 to place a hood over this type of heater: "It is and it was a must." Brenner testified that a hood served a multiple purpose. In the first place, it was a safety device for

drawing off any gases produced in the burning process. Secondly, it would draw off any unburned gases and any air in the room where the gas appliance was located -- it would create circulation in the room by means of a draft. Since the Andreoli heater had no hood, it did not conform to the standard practices of installation in 1951 or thereafter.

Brenner also referred to the standards contained in the National Board of Fire Underwriters pamphlet relating to the installation of gas appliances and equipment. It was his opinion that there would have been no explosion had the heater been properly vented and hooded.

Reference to Pamphlet 52, which was described as the "standard text," reveals that regulation 23, dealing with the venting of appliances, provides ...

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