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Service of gas system led to explosion in home: plaintiff

Amount:

$19,786,818

Type:

Verdict-Plaintiff

State:

California

Venue:

Los Angeles County

Court:

Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles

Injury Type(s):

brain-traumatic brain injury; burns-third degree; burns-second degree; other-carbon monoxide poisoning; other-scar and/or disfigurement; surgeries/treatment-skin graft; surgeries/treatment-debridement; mental/psychological-cognition (memory, impairment); mental/psychological-chronic depressive disorder; mental/psychological-post-traumatic stress disorder; pulmonary/respiratory-anoxia

Case Type:

Landlord and Tenant; Premises Liability - Fire; Professional Negligence; Premises Liability - Dangerous Condition, Negligent Repair and/or Maintenance

Case Name:

Pengxuan Diao v. Southern California Gas Company, Sempra Energy, Joanna Cheung, Richard Liu, Yongsheng Li, and Does 1 Through 100, No. BC481312

Date:

June 25, 2014

Parties

Plaintiff(s):

Pengxuan Diao (Male, 23 Years)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

Kevin R. Boyle; Panish Shea & Boyle LLP; Los Angeles, CA, for Pengxuan Diao ■ Rahul Ravipudi; Panish Shea & Boyle LLP; Los Angeles, CA, for Pengxuan Diao ■ Robert Glassman; Panish Shea & Boyle LLP; Los Angeles, CA, for Pengxuan Diao

Plaintiff Expert(s):

H. Fisk; M.D.; Neurology; Los Angeles, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Jan Roughan; R.N., B.S.N.; Life Care Planning; Monrovia, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Monte Buchsbaum; M.D.; Radiology; San Diego, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Peter Formuzis; Ph.D.; Economics; Santa Ana, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Ricky Sarkisian; Ph.D.; Vocational Rehabilitation; Fresno, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Johnny Wen; Ph.D.; Neuropsychology; Torrance, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Michel Brones; M.D.; Plastic Surgery/Reconstructive Surgery; Los Angeles, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman ■ Wei-Chin Hwang; Ph.D.; Clinical Psychology; Claremont, CA called by Kevin R. Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi, Robert Glassman

Defendant(s):

Richard Liu, 

Yongsheng Li, 

Joanna Cheung, 

Sempra Energy, 

Southern California Gas Company

Defense Attorney(s):

John H. Horwitz; Schaffer, Lax, McNaughton & Chen; Los Angeles, CA, for Richard Liu, Joanna Cheung ■ Paul J. Loh; Willenken Wilson Loh & Delgado LLP; Los Angeles, CA, for Southern California Gas Company ■ Kara A. Pape; Schaffer, Lax, McNaughton & Chen; Los Angeles, CA, for Richard Liu, Joanna Cheung ■ Jason H. Wilson; Willenken Wilson Loh & Delgado LLP; Los Angeles, CA, for Southern California Gas Company ■ None reported; for Yongsheng Li, Sempra Energy

Defendant Expert(s):

F. Rudnick; Psychiatry; Santa Monica, CA called by John H. Horwitz, Kara A. Pape ■ Alan Waxman; Radiology; West Hollywood, CA called by John H. Horwitz, Paul J. Loh, Kara A. Pape, Jason H. Wilson ■ Erik Christiansen; Cause & Origin; Los Angeles, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson ■ Mark Kalish; Psychiatry; San Diego, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson ■ Paul Kanner; Natural Gas; Glendale, CA called by John H. Horwitz, Kara A. Pape ■ Barry Cramer; Cause & Origin; Upland, CA called by John H. Horwitz, Kara A. Pape ■ Barry Ludwig; Neurology; Los Angeles, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson ■ Doreen Casuto; Life Care Planning; San Diego, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson ■ Jennie McNulty; Economics; Los Angeles, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson ■ Joanne Latham; Vocational Rehabilitation; Simi Valley, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson ■ Thomas Parco; Building Codes; Santa Ana, CA called by John H. Horwitz, Kara A. Pape ■ Michael Gold; Neurology; Santa Monica, CA called by John H. Horwitz, Kara A. Pape ■ Alexander Majidian; Plastic Surgery/Reconstructive Surgery; West Hills, CA called by Paul J. Loh, Jason H. Wilson

Insurer(s):

Safeco Insurance Co. of America for Joanna Cheung and Richard Liu self-insured (primary carrier - $4 million policy limit) Southern California Gas Company Aegis Insurance Services, Inc. (excess) for Southern California Gas Company

Facts:

On Jan. 19, 2011, plaintiff Pengxuan Diao, 23, a college student and restaurant employee, was asleep in his home, a converted garage connected to a rental property, in San Gabriel. Shortly before noon that day, an employee with Southern California Gas Co. arrived at the property to service the gas system. While there, the employee inadvertently opened a gas valve that activated a gas line running to the garage, which was neither connected to any appliance nor capped, thereby releasing natural gas into the garage. Approximately two hours later, Diao woke up and attempted to light a cigarette, causing a flash fire. Diao caught on fire and sustained second- and third-degree burns to approximately 20 percent of his body. He also claimed a brain injury. Diao sued Southern California Gas Co. and the parent company of SoCalGas, Sempra Energy, alleging vicarious liability for the companies' employee's negligent actions. SoCalGas subsequently brought a third-party claim against Joanna Cheung and Richard Liu, the owners of the rental property, alleging that the owners were negligent. However, Diao then added Cheung and Liu as direct defendants. SoCalGas, Cheung and Liu all also filed a third-party claim against Yongsheng Li, the person who rented the main property from Cheung and Liu and sub-rented the garage to Diao. However, Li defaulted before trial. Sempra Energy was ultimately dismissed from the action. Plaintiff's counsel contended that the SoCalGas employee negligently opened the gas valve that activated the uncapped gas line running to the converted garage where Diao lived. Counsel also contended that the employee then left the property without making sure the premises was leak free, in violation of SoCalGas policy. Plaintiff's counsel further contended that the garage filled up with so much gas that even the flipping of a light switch would have caused the explosion. SoCalGas admitted partial fault for the accident, but argued that Cheung and Liu were negligent for failing to properly inspect and maintain the property, permitting an illegally converted structure to be inhabited, and for modifying and maintaining an illegal, uncapped gas line on the property. It also disputed Diao's claim regarding an explosion. SoCalGas argued that Yongsheng Li was negligent for failing to maintain the property in a safe and reasonable manner. Cheung and Liu claimed that the actions of SoCalGas and its employee were so egregious that even if they were negligent, the employee's actions were the superseding and intervening cause of the fire. As such, Cheung and Liu argued that any liability they held as property owners should be extinguished.

Injury:

Diao suffered second- and third-degree burns to roughly 20 percent of his body, including his face, neck, back, arms and legs. He claimed he also suffered anoxia from natural gas exposure and carbon monoxide poisoning, causing cognitive impairments that included short-term memory loss, executive functioning deficits and visual-spatial deficits. Diao was subsequently taken by ambulance to an emergency room, where he spent two weeks in a burn unit, during which time he underwent debridements and skin grafts to his left arm, which sustained the most severe third-degree burns. Diao then followed up with a doctor to have his burn dressings changed, but also treated with psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Diao claimed he now has permanent scarring to his arms, legs and torso. He also claimed he was very outgoing and active prior to the accident, but is now more introverted and isolated due to his burns. He further claimed he now has bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depressive disorder. Diao alleged he tried to obtain different occupations after the accident, but was unable to maintain any type of position. Thus, Diao sought recovery of $129,718 in stipulated past medical costs, $36,000 in past lost earnings, $4.2 million in future medical costs and life care planning, and $1.8 million in future lost earnings. He also sought recovery of $15 million in damages for his past pain and suffering, and $20 million in damages for his future pain and suffering. Counsel for SoCalGas disputed all of Diao's damages claims, except for past medical costs, which were stipulated to. Counsel argued that the flash fire did not cause any alleged traumatic brain injury. Counsel also did not dispute that the fire caused Diao to suffer from PTSD, depression, and residual burn scarring, but maintained that Diao had sufficiently recovered from his psychological and physical injuries and that Diao could return to his pre-accident state, engaging in outdoor and social activities as well as be able to obtain and hold gainful employment. Thus, counsel for SoCalGas argued that Diao should be awarded $129,718 in stipulated past medical costs, approximately $56,000 in past lost earnings, $6,000 in future lost earnings, $247,500 in future medical costs, and $1 million in damages for Diao's total pain and suffering.

Result:

The jury found that SoCalGas was 90 percent at fault and that Cheung and Liu were 10 percent at fault. It also found Diao's damages totaled $19,786,818.

Pengxuan Diao: $129,718 Personal Injury: Past Medical Cost; $2,000,000 Personal Injury: Future Medical Cost; $57,000 Personal Injury: Past Lost Earnings Capability; $600,100 Personal Injury: Future Lost Earnings Capability; $8,500,000 Personal Injury: Past Pain And Suffering; $8,500,000 Personal Injury: Future Pain And Suffering

Trial Information:

Judge:

Elizabeth R. Feffer

Demand:

$19 million to Southern California Gas Co.

Offer:

$0 from Southern California Gas Co.; $300,000 from Joanna Cheung and Richard Liu

Trial Length:

22  days

Trial Deliberations:

2  days

Jury Composition:

6 male/ 6 female

Editor's Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiff's and defense counsel.