(CN) — A Ninth Circuit panel will decide whether to revive claims brought by three U.S. Marines injured in a 2017 gas line explosion at Camp Pendleton.
During a routine training exercise, an amphibious assault vehicle struck an uncovered, 6-inch PVC natural gas line, rupturing the pipe and causing a massive explosion. Of the 14 Marines and one sailor on board, three Marines — plaintiffs Marco Alires, Alexander Cruz, and Oscar De La Rosa — were badly burned.
The Marines accuse San Diego Gas & Electric, which provides gas for Camp Pendleton, of allowing its PVC pipes to become old, outdated, improperly buried and out of compliance.
A federal judge threw out the lawsuits in 2021, finding them preempted by a regulation approved by the California Public Utility Commission. Rule 26 states that the customer — in this case, Camp Pendleton — is responsible for maintaining equipment, including gas lines, as well as any "injuries or damages" occurring from their disrepair.
In their opening appellate brief, lawyers for the Marines argued that Rule 26 didn't apply, because San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) knew about "a series of dangerous conditions plaguing the camp’s gas-distribution system — ranging from insufficient mapping of the gas lines, to inadequate marking and burial of those lines, to the system’s extensive use of horribly outdated PVC pipes."
The utility company, they argue, should have turned off the gas.
"Although SDG&E had a duty to discontinue gas service under these circumstances (until the danger could be remedied), SDG&E did nothing," the plaintiffs wrote. "And that failure catastrophically injured three servicemembers."
In fact, a few months before the explosion, another vehicle ruptured a different part of the same gas line, causing a leak, but not an explosion. That was just one clue, the plaintiffs wrote, that the gas should have been turned off.
During oral arguments at the Ninth Circuit on Tuesday, the Marines' attorney, Andrew Gould, argued that the lower court's interpretation of Rule 26 was far too broad.
U.S. Circuit Judge Bridget Bade, a Donald Trump appointee, seemed to push back on this argument.
"The language of the rule is broad," said Bade. "It talks about any liability, any damages… arising from the condition and maintenance of the pipes. Why would it have to say anything more than ‘any?’"
Gould argued that Rule 26 had to be interpreted within California's "broader regulatory universe," which, he said, was focused on "public safety, on making sure the utilities are acting in a reasonable manner to prevent these types of accidents from happening."
The utility's attorney Frederic Cohen argued SDG&E couldn't be expected to shut off the gas just because it knew that the base's pipes were old.
"If a gas company were required to turn off the gas until gas lines were upgraded, you wouldn’t have gas on that base for 10 years," he told the court. "That’s a very drastic remedy."
As to the fact that the gas lines were unmarked and exposed, Cohen said, "We have conditions that the gas company had no control over and no knowledge of," and added the issues were "the result of a maintenance problem within the control of the consumer."
U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Paez, a Bill Clinton appointee, and U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone, a George W. Bush appointee sitting by designation from the Western District of Texas, rounded out the panel. Should they agree with the plaintiffs and overturn the lower court's ruling, it would proceed to trial, where the key issue would be whether the gas company knew about the bad condition of the pipes.
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