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Kulas v. Public Service Electric and Gas Co.

Decided: January 20, 1964.

CHARLES KULAS, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
PUBLIC SERVICE ELECTRIC AND GAS COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT, AND JACOB JACOBS, ET AL., DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF, V. VINCENT WHITE, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT



For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall, Schettino and Haneman. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Proctor, J.

Proctor

This action in negligence arises out of an accident which occurred on April 9, 1960, when the plaintiffs' house was destroyed as a result of an explosion. The jury returned a verdict of $18,000 against the defendants Public Service Electric and Gas Company and Jacob Jacobs & Sons (Jacobs). A verdict of no cause for action was returned in favor of the third-party defendant Vincent White against the third-party plaintiff Jacobs. Jacobs did not appeal from either judgment. The defendant Public Service moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative for a new trial. The motion was denied and the defendant appealed. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgment of the trial court. We granted defendant's petition for certification. 40 N.J. 223 (1963).

In November 1959 the plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kulas, who were constructing a house at 1435 Lincoln Avenue, Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, requested the defendant Public Service to install gas service so that heat would be available during the final stages of construction. Public Service ran a service pipe underground from its gas main in the street to the cellar of plaintiffs' house and subsequently in January 1960 turned on the service.

Vincent White, a brother of Mrs. Kulas, was assisting Mr. Kulas in the construction of the house. In April 1960 when the house was substantially completed, White, in Kulas' presence, designated an area in the front yard for the installation of a septic tank. Kulas testified that the area was located so as not to interfere with the gas service pipe leading from the street to the house. He said that the area for the tank installation had been marked with lime by White. The excavation was to be approximately 16 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 5 feet deep. White, with Kulas' approval, hired the defendant Jacobs to excavate the area. Pursuant to their agreement, Keimpe Jacobs, son of Jacob Jacobs, arrived at about 11:30 A.M. on April 9, 1960, with a bucket loading machine to do the excavating. White testified that he indicated to him the

area to be bulldozed which was several feet from the gas service line. However, he did not tell either Jacob Jacobs or Keimpe Jacobs the location of the gas service pipe, nor did either of them inquire where the utilities were located.

According to White, he left Keimpe to his bulldozing, entered the house, ate his lunch, and proceeded with his own work when he heard a blast. He ran outside and learned from Keimpe, who had then reached a depth of approximately three feet, that the bulldozer had hit the service gas pipe. White proceeded to the cellar and saw that the pipe was pulled away from the house connection and that gas was gushing into the cellar. After opening all the windows, White ran next door, telephoned the Public Service, told its dispatcher what had happened, and requested immediate assistance. Sometime within the ensuing 20 minutes, an explosion occurred resulting in the complete destruction of the house.

The plaintiffs charged Public Service with liability on two separate grounds. First, they contended that it was negligent in failing to install properly the gas pipe which was hit by Keimpe Jacobs, i.e., that the pipe was installed too close to the surface of the ground. Secondly, they contended that Public Service was negligent in failing to respond within a reasonable time to an emergency call about the broken service line.

Public Service initially contends on this appeal that there is no proof in the record showing that the installation of the gas service pipe, if improper, was a substantial factor in causing the explosion, and that therefore the trial court erred in denying its motion for a directed verdict and submitting this issue to the jury.

The evidence regarding both the actual depth of the pipe and the minimum-depth standard was conflicting. Lawrence Feldman, a plumbing and heating contractor, who had installed the heating apparatus inside the house, testified for the plaintiffs. He admitted that he had never installed gas service lines, since this was the responsibility of the utility company, but he said that he had observed gas service line

installations in approximately 1,000 houses on which he had worked. Over the defendant's objection as to his qualifications, he was permitted to testify that as a standard rule gas service lines have been installed "anywhere from 30 to 36 inches below the ground." However, on cross-examination Feldman qualified his "standard" by saying that the depth depends upon the location of the main in the street and also upon the nature of the construction of the house. He testified:

"Q. Well, if the excavation for a cellar is eight foot deep and the house would go close to the ground, the entire cellar is below the ground, it would involve a different entrance into the cellar for your gas service pipe than this house that was considerably above the ...


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