Houston attorney Nick Morrow recently convinced a South Texas jury that both a homebuilder and a utility company were negligent for their part in failing to seal a gas utility valve that eventually caused a Laredo home to explode, injuring his clients.
But in winning $7 million in damages from the Laredo jury, Morrow also had them convinced that the problems that caused the explosion in his clients’ case might not be an isolated event. “This is a case that everyone can relate to because a lot of people have these valves in their house,’’ said Morrow, a partner in Houston’s Morrow & Sheppard, of the Oct. 25 verdict in Ramirez v. Westwind Development. “We made a big deal, and rightly so, that this is a big public safety issue.’’
Morrow’s clients, Fernando and Minerva Ramirez, sued Westwind Development and Centerpoint Energy alleging the builder and the gas utility failed to seal a gas valve in the utility closet of their daughter-in-law’s home. In their petition, the couple alleged the explosion happened in 2015 when Fernando moved an electric power cord for an electric dryer in the room. Fernando Ramirez alleged he was knocked over by the explosion and suffered second and third degree burns to his face and arms and that he and his wife both suffered emotion trauma and post-traumatic stress from the incident. At trial, both Westwind and Centerpoint denied negligence and alleged that the plaintiffs were partly responsible for the explosion because the failed to pay attention to the smell and sound of leaking gas in the home. But Morrow presented testimony to the jury from a Centerpoint technician who said gas valves in numerous homes built by Westwind in Laredo had had not been plugged. A Westwind Construction supervisor also testified that some homes constructed in Laredo had gas valves that had not been properly plugged, Morrow said.
Before returning the Oct. 25 verdict, the jury sent out a note to the trial judge asking whether Westwind and Centerpoint would be required “to inform their customers and consumers of the possible hazard due to unplugged valves in their homes, in addition to monetary damages. Is this possible?”
Morrow said the trial court does not have the authority to force the defendants to issue a warning. But the note indicated the jury’s broader concerns about the case, he said. “The jury walked away thinking that this could happened to them,’’ Morrow said.
Ultimately, the jury found that Westwind was 60 percent responsible for the negligence in the case while Centerpoint was 34 percent responsible for the accident. The jury assigned 6 percent of the negligence to a plumber who previously settled with the plaintiffs. And the jury also found that Fernando Ramirez had zero negligence for his part in the explosion. David Oubre, a partner in the Houston office of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith who represents Westwind, did not return a call for comment. Randy Donato, a partner in Houston’s Donato, Minx, Brown & Pool, who represents Centerpoint, also did not return a call for comment.
Morrow also notes that Westwind has since taken steps to plug and seal gas valves in Laredo homes and Centerpoint has changed its policy about inspecting valves in the city .And Morrow added that Fernando Ramirez was in tears when he learned the jury determined he was not negligent in the explosion that damaged the home so badly it had to be demolished.
“To him, he’s vindicated,” Morrow said. “This thing was supposed to be sealed and plugged. That was the fault of these companies, not the guy cleaning the lint out from behind the dryer.”