$5,000,000 – Fatal Propane Explosion Case

Two Philadelphia attorneys on Friday secured a $5 million settlement for four family members of a retired New Jersey firefighter who was fatally burned in a propane explosion in Ocean View, N.J.

Robert Mongeluzzi and Michael Hopkins of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky represented the decedent’s spouse, as well as his son, grandson, and brother in Paolini v. Resort Campground Corp., filed in Camden County, N.J.

Mongeluzzi attributed the sizable settlement – reached after mediation in New Jersey – in part to the emotional distress claims of decedent Salvatore Paolini’s grandson, son, and brother, all of whom witnessed the fatal accident, and in part to the information provided during the mediation by Paolini’s burn doctor.

“The pain Sal Paolini endured is incapable of description,” the plaintiffs’ mediation memorandum states. “He was engulfed in a ball of fire. He suffered burns to 60 percent of his total body area. . . . The agony inflicted by these injuries was not brief.”

According to Mongeluzzi, Paolini’s estate will receive $3.5 million, while his son, Gregory Paolini, will receive $600,000 for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Paolini’s grandson, Andrew Paolini, is slated to receive $500,000 for emotional distress, and his brother, Richard Paolini, $400,000 also for emotional distress.

The plaintiffs’ mediation memorandum states that Salvatore Paolini was injured on April 14, 2001, when he attempted to extinguish a fire at a neighbor’s camping trailer at defendant Resorts Campground Country Club in Ocean View.

The neighbor, defendant Theodore Ostenrider, also had a camping trailer, the memorandum states. A hot water heater and a 100-pound propane tank were positioned next to his trailer, several inches apart, the document states.

The memorandum states that the locations of the water heater and the propane tank violated New Jersey law, which dictates that any relief valve on a propane tank must be a minimum of five feet away from any source of ignition – here the pilot light for the hot water heater.

On the day of the accident, Ostenrider took his propane tank to defendant Citgo Service Station to have it refilled, the memorandum states. A Citgo employee overfilled the tank because he believed it had an automatic shutoff device, the plaintiffs alleged in the memorandum.

According to the memorandum, propane cylinders should not be filled beyond 80 percent capacity because as temperatures rise, propane expands. Further, the memorandum states, propane tanks have release valves that are designed to relieve pressure buildup and prevent tank ruptures.

In this case, the overfilled tank began to release propane gas that pooled on the ground around the propane tank and the water heater, the memorandum states. A puddle of propane was then ignited by the water heater’s pilot light, causing a small brushfire.

It was here that the decedent became involved, the memorandum indicates.

Gregory Paolini saw the brush fire and alerted his father, a retired professional firefighter, the memorandum states. The decedent then went to the scene and attempted to open a faucet to extinguish the fire.

According to Mongeluzzi, the heat from the brushfire caused the propane in the nearby tank to expand, with a large amount of propane discharging from the cylinder’s relief valve. The memorandum states that a fireball resulted and that Salvatore Paolini was directly in its path.

The decedent was flown to the Crozer Chester Burn Center, where he was eventually placed in an induced coma before his death on May 4, 2001, the memorandum states.

The memorandum states that the decedent’s treating physician at the burn center determined that he had suffered burns over his face, neck, chest, back and lower extremities, totaling 60 percent of his body area.

The plaintiffs claimed in their memorandum that Citgo was responsible for properly training its employees to fill propane tanks and had not done so.

Mongeluzzi told The Legal that “to [Citgo’s] credit, [the company] did not come in with the contention that they weren’t responsible.” He also said the company was “extremely respectful to the Paolini family during the mediation process” and that such treatment, along with expressions of regret from Citgo, provided closure for the family.

Citgo did contend, however, that the propane tank in question had been placed too close to Ostenrider’s water heater, Mongeluzzi said. The attorney said the defendant company claimed that had the two units not been in proximity, the propane cylinder, even if overfilled, would not have ignited.

The plaintiffs also alleged in their mediation memorandum that Resorts Campground should have had a system in place to identify and correct conditions that posed safety hazards.

“Resorts [Campground] had no independent inspection policy to identify and eliminate hazardous conditions,” the memorandum states. “Resorts failed to implement an inspection program even after it had been warned by [defendant] Modern Gas Company [which performed water heater installations] of another illegal hookup prior to Sal Paolini’s accident.”

Citgo also said the campground should have had a safety inspection policy in place, Mongeluzzi said.

According to the attorney, Ostenrider’s $50,000 homeowner’s policy was tendered immediately.

The plaintiffs claimed medical bills of more than $327,000 and funeral expenses of more than $15,000. Additional claims included the decedent’s loss of life’s pleasures, pain and suffering between the time of his injury and his death, and emotional distress claims by the family members who witnessed the fatal accident.

In total, the plaintiffs demanded $11 million in their mediation memorandum. Mongeluzzi was unable to provide the breakdown of payments by the various defendants at press time.

Kim Catullo of Gibbons Del Deo Dolan Griffinger & Vecchione in Newark, N.J., who represented Citgo, did not return phone calls prior to press time. Linton Turner Jr. of Crawshaw Mayfield Turner O’Mara Donnelly & McBride in Cherry Hill, N.J., who served as counsel for Resorts Campground, could not be reached for comment prior to press time.

Guy Mercogliano of Sweeney & Sheehan in Philadelphia represented defendant Steenlands Fuel Service Inc., which, according to the mediation memorandum, was the company that installed the propane gas pumping station at the defendant Citgo station in 1997. John Mastronardi of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Cherry Hill represented Ostenrider. Attorney Bruce Hellies represented Modern Gas Co.

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