On Oct. 13, 2022, a Portland, Oregon, jury awarded a total of $10.4 million in actual and punitive damages to two plaintiffs who were injured in a massive October 2016 natural gas explosion after a contractor’s backhoe struck an underground gas line. The case is Rader and Prentice v. Loy Clark Pipeline Co.
The explosion occurred on NW 23rd Street in Portland, a fashionable area packed with shops, bars and restaurants. It has a number of historic buildings (including the one that exploded). There are many shops and restaurants at street level, with expensive apartments above. Locals refer to the area as “Nob Hill,” or more recently “Trendy Three.” In summer 2016, new construction in the area — including a mixed-use building at the southwest corner of NW 23rd Street and Glisan — required the rerouting of several underground utility lines, as well as the installation of new underground junction vaults.
One of the new junction vaults was to be located on Glisan Street in the sidewalk in front of Portland Bagelworks, which was at the northeast corner of 23rd and Glisan. This box was for underground lines owned by Comcast, and Comcast hired Loy Clark to install it. The work would require excavation.
Oregon has a “One Call” statute that is designed to prevent excavation damage to underground utility lines, including gas and electric. Under the Oregon statute, an excavator must call the Oregon Utility Notification Center (OUNC) at least two business days before beginning work. It must state the location and date of the excavation and the type of work to be performed. OUNC then issues a “locate ticket” conveying this information to all its members, which are all utilities with underground lines.
Yellow for Gas
Using the locate ticket information, utilities with underground lines in the excavation area then locate and mark their lines in that area. Generally, utilities hire contractors to do this. They use specialized equipment that tells them the location of a line. Then they mark the line, usually with spray paint on the surface or sometimes with flags.
Each type of utility has a designated color; gas is yellow, so when an excavator sees a yellow line on the ground, it knows there is an underground gas line beneath it. The excavator then is obligated to take special measures to ensure that its equipment does not hit or damage
Many state laws exempt underground propane lines from these locating and marking requirements. Presumably this is because most underground propane lines are on private property, where the owner knows the location. However, that can change, as it did recently in Maine after the tragic 2019 Farmington explosion (refer to BPN’s August and September 2020 issues at bpnews.com).
One Wrong Word
On Sept. 12, 2016, Loy Clark notified OUNC of its planned excavation at 23rd and Glisan. Sadly, this notice stated that the excavation would be on the south side of Glisan, when in fact it was going to be done on the north side of the street.
Sometimes one simple mistake — one wrong word in the paperwork — can lead to tragic consequences. The locate tickets were duly issued to the utilities, which duly located and marked their underground lines on the south side of Glisan. The clock was ticking.
The clock stopped ticking on Oct. 19. First thing that morning, Loy Clark personnel used a backhoe on the north side of Glisan to dig a hole for the Comcast utility vault. Of course, due to the mix-up, there were no utility markings on that side of the street, although there were apparently some indicators of utility lines in the area. But the crew began digging, and they were digging blind.
At a depth of 30 inches, the backhoe struck and snagged a Northwest Natural Gas service line, apparently the line to Portland Bagelworks. (A service line is a branch line from the gas main to an individual customer location.) Although the service line was not broken, the upward motion of the bucket pulled the line out of the inlet of an underground valve that was close to the Bagelworks building. (The access hole for this valve was in the sidewalk and had a metal lid, presumably with the word “GAS” on it — certainly an indicator that there were underground gas lines in the area.)
High-pressure gas began leaking underground from the service line. The pressure was strong enough to lift the metal valve lid from its housing in the sidewalk, causing it to levitate above the surface. Gas quickly migrated into the basement of the Bagelworks building.
In the meantime, Loy Clark personnel called Northwest Natural Gas at 8:48 a.m. to report that a gas line had been hit and there was leaking gas. At 8:51, Northwest Natural received a call from Portland Bagelworks reporting gas odor inside the building. At 9:07, Loy Clark personnel called 911, which in turn notified the Portland Fire Department. Northwest Natural and Fire Department personnel were promptly dispatched to the scene.
Northwest Natural employee Eric Rader was one of the first to arrive, apparently around 9:10. He was followed in short order at 9:12 by the first of multiple firetrucks. Rader began to check for gas inside buildings in the area, using a hand-held detector. He immediately found dangerously high levels of gas inside the Bagelworks building.
Rader alerted firefighter Peter St. John, who had just arrived on the scene, to the dangerous levels of gas in the building. By that point, gas was so thick outside that waves could be seen in the air. St. John donned a protective mask and entered the Bagelworks building. He evacuated the people who had not already left and looked for fire alarms to pull. Rader alerted firefighters outside to the dangerous gas levels. They retreated and pulled back their equipment.
Kristen Prentice, a beautician who worked next to the Bagelworks building, was alerted to the danger by firefighters. She ran to a position of relative safety half a block away. Rader also moved back from the immediate area once he had alerted fire personnel of the danger.
At 9:48, three separate explosions obliterated the Bagelworks building, a historic structure, as the first, second and third floors exploded in rapid succession. Everyone had evacuated, except perhaps St. John, who was blown 20 feet across the street into a chain-link fence. He broke both legs. He couldn’t recall where he was at the time of the explosion. Miraculously, no one was killed. In all, two police officers, three firefighters and three civilians sustained injuries, none of them life-threatening. Property damage totaled over $17 million. Multiple lawsuits were filed. Loy Clark was the primary target of these suits. Within a day of the incident, it accepted responsibility.
Rader and Prentice filed suits against Loy Clark, which admitted its negligence but denied its actions were in reckless disregard of public safety (calling for punitive damages). Their suits were tried together. The jury awarded both actual and punitive damages to both plaintiffs.
Rader received an award of $1.6 million in actual damages. He had serious hearing loss and painful sensitivity to loud noises. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Prentice received an actual damages award of $4.2 million. She also had serious hearing loss and painful sensitivity to loud noises and suffered from PTSD. However, she could not return to work and relies on an assistance dog to calm her anxiety.
Rader and Prentice each received a punitive damages award of $2.3 million. Under Oregon law, approximately 70% of these awards will be directed to the state crime victims’ fund.