PERSONAL INJURY: ZERO DOLLARS
Case name: Roach, et al. v. Dixie Gas Co., et al.
Case number: 06-02-0140
Court: Hardeman County, Tenn
Judge: Judge Weber McCraw
Injuries alleged: Severe PTSD and depression; permanent hearing loss and impaired speech; complete disability; lost earnings
Original amount sought: Plaintiffs’ original demand was $15,000,000; demand at trial was $6.5 million.
Highest offer: $100,000
Verdict/settlement: Verdict in favor of defendant; after an eight-day trial, the jury deliberated one hour and returned a unanimous verdict finding plaintiffs’ alleged injuries were not caused by the defendants and that the plaintiffs incurred no damages.
Verdict/settlement date: Jan. 28, 2010
Original filing date: April 19, 2006 Incident Date: April 22, 2005
Plaintiff attorney: Edward M. Bearman, Esq., Memphis, TN
Defense attorney: John V. McCoy, Eugene LaFlamme, McCoy & Hofbauer SC, Waukesha
Plaintiff experts at trial: Dr. Shea, Dr. Anton, Dr. Head, Dr. Garman, Virgil Nutt, Dr. Larry Bates, Leon Tingle, Dr. Augustus.
Defense experts at trial: Dr. Schwaber, Dr. Wolters, Robert Vance Insurance Company: Crum & Forster
Defense counsel’s summary of case: Dixie Gas had seven 6,000-gallon propane tanks manifolded together on its premises. A liquid propane leak originated at one of the flexible connectors in the tank manifold system. The fugitive gas eventually found an ignition source and exploded. The area around the facility was evacuated for three days following the incident to burn off the remaining propane. This included almost one-half of the members of the nearby city of 6,000 residents.
At the time of the leak, the plaintiffs were at the facility to purchase propane for their RV and camping trip. The husband exited the RV and went into the office to order the propane. Soon thereafter the leak started.
The plaintiffs claimed that the propane cloud immediately enveloped their RV. The husband alleged that he was forced to feel his way through the gas cloud and down the RV to rescue his wife. Both plaintiffs claimed to have just gotten past the gate when the first explosion occurred. They testified that the force of the blast wave knocked them to the ground and caused immediate hearing loss and severe ringing in their ears. They stated that they were forced to huddle in a ravine with the husband lying on top of his wife to protect her. They also testified they feared for their lives.
For strategic reasons, the defendants conceded before any evidence was presented in the case that they were negligent in causing the explosion. Thus the sole issue at trial was whether defendants’ negligence caused the alleged injuries, and if so, what damages did plaintiffs suffer.
The defense produced a neighbor from across the street who saw the plaintiffs leave the facility about five minutes before the ignition. Although the plaintiffs testified that there were only two minutes from the time the leak started to its ignition, other independent fact witnesses offered a seven- to 15-minute timeframe. Fire department personnel who secured the scene after the leak but before the gas ignited did not see the plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs testified they suffered severe PTSD and depression as a result of the accident that left them completely disabled for life. They alleged a laundry list of injuries related to PTSD and depression, including loss of balance and ability to focus, memory loss, nightmares, severe headaches, vertigo, nausea, incontinence and cognitive dysfunction. This was in addition to the permanent hearing loss and ringing in their ears. The husband also presented with a “baby talk” condition, where he would speak in a manner where he would drop conjunctions. For example, if a normal person would say, “I am going to go downstairs,” the husband would say in a slowed and slurred speech pattern, “I go downstairs.” The plaintiffs secured a host of doctors that were very well qualified in ENT, psychiatry, neuro-psychology, neurology and occupational hazards in support of their injury complaints. The plaintiffs argued that these injuries caused them to lose their business and suffer other severe economic damages.
Defendants’ psychiatric and neuropsychological experts testified that the plaintiffs were faking or greatly exaggerating their complaints. The defense neuropsychologist had the husband take a neuropsychological test called the MMPI-2, which has a component to it that examines faking and exaggeration in a litigation context (FBS or Fake Bad Scale). He testified that the husband scored the highest score he had ever seen.
The defense otolaryngologist testified that the husband does have bilateral symmetric hearing loss, but this type of hearing loss is not consistent with a blast injury. It is typically the result of prolonged noise exposure or a hereditary condition.
All the medical experts agreed that the most common injury from a blast is damage to the tympanic membrane in the inner ear. Neither plaintiff had any damage to this area, which would be highly unusual if they were subjected to the type of blast wave about which they testified.
Defendants successfully attacked the plaintiffs’ economic damage claims by investigating their past financial records. Defense counsel discovered that the plaintiffs filed for bankruptcy about one to two years before the accident and had been losing money on their businesses for the preceding three years. Despite this fact, the plaintiffs’ economic expert offered the opinion that the plaintiffs had a lost earning capacity of over $4 million.