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Explosion Case Summary

Explosion, Wrongful Death, Severe Burns, Product Liability, Negligence Multi-million Dollar Result

A father and son were at a construction project on Plum Island (“the property”), to apply Rub-R-Wall (“RW”), a waterproofing material, to a cistern. A cistern is a tank that holds potable water. The cistern was located beneath the utility room at the property. Access to the cistern was gained through an opening in the floor of the utility room. When the RW was being applied, vapors from the RW were ignited by the standing pilot of a propane powered water heater located in the utility room. The ignition of the vapors caused an explosion and flash fire.

Emergency personnel from the Newburyport Fire Department (“NFD”) responded to the explosion scene. The father told a member of the NFD that he thought he had shut off everything as to eliminate any hazard. He also recounted that he saw the flame come from the water heater. At the scene, the father stated that something went wrong, everything was off and that he saw flames come from the hot water heater.

At about the time the water heater that was involved in this explosion was manufactured in 2004, there was a change underway in the industry that involved manufacturing water heaters with automatic ignition system instead of a standing pilot system. The difference between the standing pilot and automatic ignition systems is that with a standing pilot system, the pilot flame is on all of the time. In the case of an automatic ignition system, the pilot flame only comes on when heat is needed and, accordingly, is not on all the time. The automatic ignition system water heater requires electricity to power the ignition system. An automatic ignition system water heater will not start without electrical power.

The subject water heater has a standing pilot system. A seven foot power cord extends from it. If the power cord from the subject water heater is unplugged, the pilot light will remain lit. One cannot visualize the lit pilot light of the subject water, because the compartment where the pilot light is located is enclosed by an inner door, and a second, outer door.

In or about 1993, the defendant manufacturer (“DM”) of the water heater, began to place warnings on its water heaters with standing pilot systems. The warning states, in part, “[t]he pilot flame is on all time….” When DM began to manufacturer water heaters with automatic ignition systems, an entirely different warning was used. The warning for automatic ignition system water heaters states, in part, [t]he pilot flame, which can come on at any time….”

The subject water heater, a standing pilot system water heater, had affixed to it an automatic ignition system warning. There were no warnings on the subject water heater that stated that the standing pilot would remain lit if the subject water heater’s power cord was unplugged.

The father was in the utility room at the time of the explosion. He suffered first, second and third degree burns over most of his body. The father died on September 6, 2005, as a direct result of the injuries suffered in the explosion. He was 51 years old at the time of his tragic and premature death.

The son was in the cistern at the time of the explosion. He suffered first, second and third degree burns over sixty five (65%) percent of his body. He was 24 years old at the time of the explosion. The son was hospitalized for over six months as a result of the explosion. He has undergone over twenty surgical procedures. It is expected that he will have multiple surgical procedures in the future. The son has been left with obvious and devastatingly disfiguring scarring over his body, especially to his face and hands. He has suffered lost earnings and earning capacity. He will never be able to return to his prior level of physical activity. He has endured and will continue to endure incredible physical and emotional pain and suffering.


DM manufactured the propane powered water heater that was the ignition source of the explosion. Defendant Plumber (“DP”) sold the water heater to the Defendant General Contractor (“DGC”) for the construction project at the property. DP installed the water heater at the property. The Plaintiff, through counsel, was prepared to establish through the testimony of several expert witnesses that the water heater was defective and dangerous because it had the wrong warning label attached and there was no warning at all concerning the fact that when the standing pilot was lit, if the water heater was unplugged, the standing pilot would remain lit. The evidence would establish that the negligence and/or breach of warranty by DM and/or DP, and the negligence of DGC were substantial contributing causes of the explosion.

The Plaintiff, through counsel, was prepared to offer compelling evidence of the devastating losses suffered by both the father and son. The Plaintiff intended to call several doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital to recount the injuries suffered by the father and son, the cause of father’s death, the treatment endured by the son, including the twenty-one surgical procedures. Plaintiff was also prepared to call an Economist to testify about the economic losses, including, past earnings, future earning capacity, future medical expenses, loss of services, etc.

At Mediation, DP and DGC quickly tendered their policy limits. The Plaintiff was not able to reach a settlement agreement with DM through Mediation. DM’s offer at Mediation was in the low six figures. Shortly before trial was scheduled to commence, DM initiated further settlement discussions. DM extended a multi-million dollar offer that resolved the case.

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