July 14, 2011
Significant Verdict in Washington County

Significant Verdict in Washington County

Although not my case, I had the privilege of watching portions of the trial of McLaughlin v. American Electric Power in June, here in Marietta. The case reinforces why our civil justice system and juries are so important.

In 2007, there was a fatal explosion at the Muskingum River power plant north of Beverly, Ohio.  Ohio Power (a division of American Electric Power) operated the plant. One man died, and several more were seriously injured. The explosion was caused by escaping hydrogen.  As I learned during the trial, the turbines at power plants must be cooled, just like our car engines.  Hydrogen cooling is the preferred method. This requires storing large quantities of hydrogen at the facility

Of course, hydrogen can be dangerous—remember the Hindenberg. If it escapes and mixes with the outside air, it can explode. In the case of the Muskingum River plant, Ohio Power had an antiquated hydrogen storage system. The old vent pipes were made of copper (should not be). The vent pipes also multiple bends and turns. (Should not be—the vent pipes are supposed to move any excess gas up and into the atmosphere.)

Worse yet, the entire hydrogen storage system was kept underneath large “shed” roof directly next to portions of the plant where workers would be. This is extremely dangerous. It allows the hydrogen to pool underneath the roof instead of escaping into the sky. It is much the same as when the closed lid of your gas grill can allow propane to pool and then explode when you first start the grill.

The most egregious fact of the case was that Ohio Power knew of these dangers. In fact, the plaintiff’s lawyers obtained documents showing that Ohio Power had been warned very specifically that it needed to fix its hydrogen storage system—over a year before the explosion.  They didn’t.  Apparently, they did not want to spend the money. Even more amazing was that there had been other hydrogen explosions, caused by the same problems, at other Ohio Power plants during the few years before the Muskingum River plant explosion.

Normally, a worker cannot sue his or her employer for workplace injuries, even if the employer was negligent. Workers compensation benefits pay the bills.  But, in Ohio, an employee can sue if the employer is shown to have a “deliberate intent” to injure. Removal of safety guards is the typical example.

In this case, Mr. McLaughlin’s lawyers successfully persuaded the jury that Ohio Power’s complete indifference to its worker’s safety amounted to a “deliberate intent” to injure.

The jury awarded Mr. McLaughlin nearly $1.7 million.  Then, two days later, the jury also awarded punitive damages in the amount of $4 million.  (This was equivalent to four days of profit at the Muskingum River plant.) The media loves to print stories of “frivolous” lawsuits. However, there is often not much coverage when a jury rightfully punishes a person or company with exemplary (punitive) damages for malicious or callous conduct.

Indeed, before this case, Ohio Power only repaired its hydrogen storage systems after explosions. Perhaps now, because of a Washington County jury, Ohio Power will fix dangerous problems before people are injured or killed.
-Ethan Vessels