Record-Setting $160 Million Settlement Paid by U Haul to Victims of Propane Tank Explosion
Evidence revealed that the 69-year-old tank had no pressure-relief valve, was never inspected and that U‑Haul workers who refilled it lacked proper training.
PHILADELPHIA – A catastrophic food truck explosion in July 2014 that killed two and severely burned two others has resulted in the largest pre-verdict settlement in Pennsylvania state court history.
The $160 million global settlement for these lawsuits also includes the largest settlement ever paid to a minor in Pennsylvania – $54.35 million to a girl identified in court papers only as “Jane Doe” who was helping her aunt on the food truck and was burned over 65 percent of her body in the accident.
Jane Doe’s lawyers, Tom Duffy, Ken Fulginiti and Sarah Dooley, worked for years to prove that U-Haul was to blame for the accident. Over 55 depositions were conducted, over 100 motions to secure evidence, and thousands of hours of video surveillance was viewed as Ms. Doe’s team battled more than 35 attorneys hired by various U-Haul entities.
In a week-long arbitration prior to the settlement, Fulginiti and Dooley argued that the safety laws regulating propane tanks are designed to protect consumers by mandating that propane sellers such as U‑Haul adhere to a strict protocol of inspections of propane cylinders and trainings for the workers who refill the tanks.
To help arbitrator Diane Welsh better understand what happened, Fulginiti and Dooley prepared a custom animation to illustrate precisely what caused the explosion and how it could have been prevented - by proper inspection and by a pressure relief valve on the propane tank. The animation also showed how the buildup of pressure in an overfilled tank on a hot day led to a rupture that engulfed the food truck in flames.
Animation prepared by Magna Legal Services.
“By the time we finished questioning witnesses and reviewing surveillance video and documents, the case against U-Haul was irrefutable,” said Fulginiti.
While the law requires that propane tanks be “qualified” and tested for safety at least once every seven years, Fulginiti noted that the tank from the explosion had never been requalified since it was manufactured in 1948: “Nonetheless,” he said, “U-Haul workers refilled this same tank several times a week and never once noticed that it was out of date or was lacking the mandatory pressure-relief valve.”
Safety laws also mandate that propane tanks can be refilled only by workers who are certified, but it appeared that U-Haul allowed an untrained worker to do so, a fact revealed only after examining countless hours of surveillance.
“What we found was a complete breakdown in safety protocols,” said Fulginiti. Video from U-Haul’s surveillance cameras, he said, showed that workers helped place the tanks in a vehicle lying down despite strict regulations that such tanks must always be transported in an upright and secured position.
Dooley noted that the settlement will provide for Jane Doe’s medical treatments, expected to continue for the rest of her life, and that her physical and emotional suffering is far from over. The settlement, Dooley said, will also provide for all of her future educational needs.
“This completely preventable accident has profoundly changed a young woman’s life,” Dooley said. “She witnessed the horrific deaths of two relatives and her own scars are constant and relentless reminder of that awful day.”
As part of the settlement, Ms. Doe’s counsel also required U-Haul to adopt and enforce new safety standards. Further, Ms. Doe’s counsel voluntarily contributed, along with the other victims counsel, for the sponsorship of a mobile food truck that will provide education throughout the city on safe and healthy food preparation.