Washing the Floor...With Gasoline - John C. Wunsch, P.C.
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Washing the Floor…With Gasoline

The problem with just about any set of facts is that it quickly becomes complex, resistant to being easily encapsulated.

The gasoline station was managed by Elward Hudson, who, approximately one year before the accident, leased the station and certain equipment from the Defendant. One of the duties assigned to the Plaintiff by Hudson was to clean the lubrication room. Plaintiff was instructed by Hudson to pour gasoline on the floor, scrub the floor with a mop, then take a water hose and run the grease down the drain. Hudson would help Plaintiff with the job.

Think. The Defense will argue such a decision defies common sense. Who in their right mind would wash down a floor using gasoline? Before you accept the case, ask: have there been instances where gasoline has been utilized and/or advertised as a cleaning solution? Are there cleaning solutions in use that are equally as flammable? What reasons would justify the use of gasoline in this context over the use of other less combustible alternatives? Your first task would be to explain the decision to use gasoline as a cleaning agent. This actually will take quite a lot of research, exploration, and investigation.

On the day of the accident, Plaintiff had nearly completed the job as detailed above when an explosion occurred which badly burned him. Plaintiff had finished using the gasoline approximately ten to fifteen minutes before the explosion. At the time of the explosion, Plaintiff was standing near the grease rack, which was about four feet from a burning oil stove. This stove was located in the office near the doorway between the office and the lubrication room. These two rooms were separated by a wall, a doorway, and a glass window. However, when Hudson leased the premises, the door and the glass window pane were missing. The door and the window pane were not replaced by Hudson, and both were missing at the time of the accident. The oil stove was portable and was owned by Hudson.

Think. Were the flames of the stove clearly visible? How large were the flames? Had the Plaintiff rinsed the floor with a water hose prior to the explosion? How many feet away from the stove was the room that had been doused with gasoline? How much gasoline was used? Could the Plaintiff have seen the stove at the time he was cleaning? Your next task would be to explain the actions of the Plaintiff and demonstrate during each step that what was done was reasonable. This would require a breakdown and evaluation (minute by minute, second by second) of what occurred. Quite a lot of work would be needed with visuals, and perhaps an expert witness, to explain this.

Plaintiff maintains that the fumes from the gasoline were allowed to escape from the lubrication room into the office because the door and window pane between the rooms were missing and thus an explosion resulted, due to the fact that the oil stove was burning. Plaintiff claims liability attaches to the Defendant because the station was leased in a dangerous and defective condition.

Think. You’re asking a Court to conclude that a landowner should recognize a missing window pane might ultimately lead to a gas explosion. That’s not a typical connection so unless you can show foreknowledge, prior awareness, you’re probably not going to succeed on that theory. What theory might have succeeded? A longstanding acceptance and acquiescence on the part of the landowner permitting the use of gasoline as a cleaning agent on its premises. Prior close calls and near misses that would have placed a reasonable landowner on notice of a potential catastrophic incident. Knowledge derived from the industry itself, such as gasoline explosions occurring at gas stations throughout the US. Etc.

We conclude that the Plaintiff, acting under the instruction of the Lessee, created the dangerous condition by his own conduct; that the absence of a door and the window pane were apparent to the Lessee and the Plaintiff, and that by the exercise of reasonable diligence Plaintiff would have avoided creating the unsafe condition. Plaintiff has failed to show that the Defendant violated any legal duty owed to him.

Think. Why wouldn’t this have been reasonably apparent? There was no smell of gasoline at the time of the explosion. The gasoline had dried, or virtually dried, thus giving rise to the belief that it no longer presented a hazard. The fumes were not visible. The gasoline had already been hosed down. Etc. Before liability will attach, the weight of neglect by the owner––something that could be established by a forensic engineer––has to be palpable, demonstrable, as opposed to Plaintiff’s following of a seemingly harmless on-the-job order (“I had no choice. It was an order. Either I carry it out as instructed––or I would have been fired.”).

While it is true for those looking in from outside that perfect clarity reigns in retrospect, in an industrial environment activities akin to washing the floor with gasoline are commonplace. They happen daily, hourly, when workers are exposed to equipment, implements, and chemicals that have the potential to cause great harm. Before you reach the point where you’re explaining the nature and extent of injuries, a great deal of explanation and investigation would be required––far more than merely pointing out the absence of a window pane where one should have been.

All quotations from: Arbutus Parris vs. Sinclair Refining Company, 359 F.2d 612 (6th Circuit. 1966)