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HEMROCK v. PEOPLES NATURAL GAS COMPANY (11/15/66)

decided: November 15, 1966.

HEMROCK
v.
PEOPLES NATURAL GAS COMPANY, APPELLANT



Appeals from judgments of Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, July T., 1961, No. 3383, in case of Helen M. Hemrock and Samuel Hemrock v. Peoples Natural Gas Company and W. W. Alberts.

COUNSEL

Milton W. Lamproplos, with him Eckert, Seamans & Cherin, for company, appellant.

William C. Walker, with him Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote, for appellant.

John E. Evans, Jr., with him Evans, Ivory & Evans, for appellees.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Musmanno. Mr. Justice Cohen and Mr. Justice Roberts concur in the result. Mr. Chief Justice Bell dissents.

Author: Musmanno

[ 423 Pa. Page 261]

On December 6, 1959, Samuel Hemrock and his wife Helen Hemrock, after an absence of several days from their abode, having attended a funeral outside the State, re-entered their home at 21 Virginia Drive in Lincoln Borough at about 3 p.m. They saw nor heard anything which would warn them of any onrushing danger, but, in a matter of minutes after they had crossed the threshold, their house rocked to an explosion which wrecked the entire structure and visited grave disabling and disfiguring injuries to Mrs. Hemrock, leaving her life as desolate as their house was no longer a human habitation.

The Hemrocks entered suit against the Peoples Natural Gas Company which supplied gas to their residence. The Gas Company brought in as an additional

[ 423 Pa. Page 262]

    defendant W. W. Alberts, the contractor who had built the house in 1946. The latter was charged with negligence in laying the line which supplied gas to the house, and the gas company was charged with negligence in failing properly to inspect the gas line. The jury returned verdicts in favor of both the husband and wife plaintiffs against both defendants. The defendants have appealed.

In refusing motions for judgment n.o.v. in the lower court, the trial judge, Judge Olbum, filed an exhaustive and extremely able opinion which disposes properly of every possible question raised by the appellants. This opinion, therefore, does not need to be as extended in length as otherwise the case might require.

In the wake of every man-made disaster, an investigation is held to ascertain the cause for the untoward happening. The examination at the explosion site of 21 Virginia Drive revealed that the pipe carrying gas from the main line into the Hemrock house had broken at a point one foot from the foundation wall. The break in the pipe localized at the threading of the coupling which, inspection demonstrated, was severely corroded. It appeared that the gas, which escaped from this break, moved through earthen interstices to the house wall, and into the closed house where it accumulated in quantity, awaiting the moment of rampage when it could find ignition. The pilot flame in the gas refrigerator supplied this incendiary cooperation and, in consequence, 21 Virginia Drive was no longer a house but a shambles.

What man-made negligence, if any, broke the dike which engulfed the Hemrock home with fire? The plaintiffs submitted a formidable case for negligence on the part of both the Peoples Natural Gas Company and the contractor, W. W. Alberts. The record relates the story of how the consumer's gas line was laid in the ground in 1946 at the time the house was constructed.

[ 423 Pa. Page 263]

Experts testifying for the plaintiff pointed out that there was gross negligence in laying the gas line in what is known as detritus soil.

As one walks or stands on ground, he assumes that everything beneath him is as solid and as immovable as the proverbial rock. Geologists tell us, however, that there are some layers of subterranean soil which far from being stationary and unmovable, show themselves to be as unsteady as layers of some oriental cheeses which are in constant ferment because of vermiculose inhabitants. Such seems to be the nature of detritus soil, which moves and creeps, as a restless sleeper. And it was in this kind of soil that the telltale pipe in this case was laid, the movement of the soil being accentuated by the fact that here it lay on a 15% slope.

The agitation of the detritus soil imposed great strain on the gas pipe, particularly at the point of the threaded coupling, its weakest point. The plaintiffs maintained that it was negligence in itself to place the coupling so close to the house wall. A proper regard for safety would have dictated a straight, unbroken pipe through the house wall and out toward the curb box.

It was testified at the trial that not only did the gas pipe rest in an uneasy bed of detritus, but, in addition, what lay beneath it offered no rigid support, since this terrain consisted of a fill which had not been tamped down.

The contractor Alberts testified that, after he had laid the water line, he covered it with a 18" layer of loose, untamped earth and then laid the gas service line on top of that. In time the filled-earth below impacted and the gas line sagged under the weight of the earth above it, all leading to the fatal break. The plaintiff contended that ...


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