The California Court of Appeal has upheld a $19,786,818 judgment against Southern California Gas Company (“SoCalGas”) for a San Gabriel, California man who suffered severe burn and traumatic brain injuries when his rental home exploded as a result of a SoCalGas employee’s negligence. Plaintiff Pengxuan Diao was represented on appeal and at trial by Kevin Boyle, Rahul Ravipudi and Robert Glassman of Panish Shea & Boyle LLP. He was also represented in the appeal by Martin N. Buchanan of the Law Office of Martin N. Buchanan.
“Today’s decision affirming the jury’s verdict will enable Mr. Diao to get the long-term care and treatment he needs for the life altering injuries he suffered as a result of the negligence of SoCalGas,” said attorney Kevin Boyle.
On January 19, 2011, a SoCalGas employee arrived at a San Gabriel property where Mr. Diao and others lived to service the gas system. While there, the employee opened a gas valve which activated a gas line running to the back house where Mr. Diao was sleeping. In violation of SoCalGas policy, the employee then left the property without ensuring it was leak free. Two hours later, Mr. Diao woke up and attempted to light a cigarette, causing the now gas-filled room to explode into flames. Mr. Diao sustained catastrophic injuries, including second and third degree burns to approximately 20 percent of his body and was hospitalized for two weeks where he received multiple surgeries (debridement and skin grafting) and extensive treatment. Mr. Diao was later also diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury which left him with permanent cognitive deficits.
At the 2014 trial, SoCalGas admitted fault for the incident but argued that the property owner was also negligent and should be held at least partially responsible for Mr. Diao’s damages. SoCalGas also challenged the nature and extent of Mr. Diao’s injuries and damages, telling the jury during closing arguments that Mr. Diao should only be awarded $1,400,000. The jury disagreed and awarded Mr. Diao $17,000,000 for past and future pain and suffering, $2,129,718 for past and future medical expenses, and $657,100 for past and future loss of earnings. This is believed to be the largest personal injury jury verdict in history against SoCalGas, who made no settlement offer at any time during the case.
On appeal, SoCalGas contended the trial court abused its discretion in declining to exclude evidence of Mr. Diao’s traumatic brain injury and that there was insufficient evidence demonstrating the gas leak or fire was the cause of that injury. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that there was “an absence of other reasonable causal explanations” for Mr. Diao’s TBI and that substantial evidence presented at trial demonstrated “it is more likely than not that the gas leak and fire caused Mr. Diao’s traumatic brain injury…”
SoCalGas also contended that the damages awarded by the jury were “punitive, excessive, and the result of passion and prejudice…” The appellate court rejected those contentions, noting SoCalGas waived any such arguments and, regardless, there is no evidence in the record that the verdict reflects any punitive component or being the product of passion or prejudice. Rather, the Court found that the award was not excessive in light of Mr. Diao’s “severe and debilitating injuries.”
Southern California Gas Company was represented on appeal by Paul J. Loh and Jason H. Wilson of Willenken Wilson Loh & Delgado as well as Julian W. Poon and Lauren M. Blas of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
In 2008, Panish Shea & Boyle LLP obtained a $15,000,000 jury verdict against Southern California Gas Company for a 14-year-old boy who was hit by a company truck. The firm also represented numerous plaintiffs in the San Bruno PG&E Gas Explosion cases and is currently representing Porter Ranch residents against SoCalGas for claims arising from a gas well blowout at the Aliso Canyon Underground Storage Facility.
Pengxuan Diao v. Southern California Gas Company
Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District, Division One
Case No. B258840
Read the Court of Appeal’s decision here
Read the Law360 article here
Read the Pasadena Star News article here
Read the My News LA article here