Last week, a 20-inch gas pipeline exploded in a massive fireball north of Charleston, destroying a piece of Interstate 77 and four homes. Fortunately there were no fatalities. The explosion occurred just after 1 p.m. on Tuesday, December 11. Although the pipe had ruptured prior to the explosion, no warning alarms were sounded to alert employees of Columbia Gas Transmission. Authorities are still trying to figure out what happened to cause the rupture and explosion.
This is a very troubling matter because West Virginia is covered by nearly 15,000 miles of natural gas pipeline, and this was hardly the first time an explosion has occurred. Last month, in western Massachusetts, a pipeline explosion damaged 40 buildings, including a daycare center. In 2010, a pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California made international headlines after destroying 10 houses and killing eight people. According to the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), between 2007 and 2011, pipeline accidents across the country have killed 68 people, including 21 workers, and caused a reported $2.6 billion in property damage. This year alone, 80 incidents occurred, 38 of which the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has classified as “serious.” These incidents caused seven injuries and “only” $44 million in property damage, and do not include the 71 incidents involving smaller, lower-pressure gas distribution pipelines, which caused nine fatalities and 21 injuries.
Despite these accidents, moving gas through pipelines has been viewed as a safer alternative to moving it via tanker trucks or ships. Yet while President Obama signed a bill last January intended to improve oversight of the pipeline networks, significant gaps in oversight remain. The PHMSA remains understaffed, with 137 inspectors at most (and frequently less) to oversee 2.5 million miles of pipeline run by 3,000 companies. Congress has yet to approve additional funding to hire more inspectors.
Pipeline explosions can completely upend lives. At best, they could damage your home, while at worst, they could take your life. Since pipeline networks are expanding, you probably have little hope of stopping them from functioning. However, you could hire a West Virginia personal injury attorney and sue the company that runs the pipeline network, its subsidiaries, and the specific employees responsible, for personal and/or property damage. In the case of the recent explosion, while Columbia Gas Transmission is headquartered in Charleston, its parent company, NiSource Gas Transmission and Storage, is based in Houston, Texas.
Because the parent company is located in a different state, you may have the option to sue in federal court. In situations where your case could be filed in either federal or state court, you must carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each forum: the jury size (jury pools are often larger in the states than in federal court), the jury makeup (state juries are drawn from the county where the court sits, while federal juries are drawn from all over the state), difference in state and federal court procedure, and difference in the way state and federal law are applied.
If you felt as though federal law would be preferable, you would need to ensure that you met the requirements for federal court. You would need to satisfy both personal jurisdiction and subject matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction means that both parties must have had some meaningful contact with the state in which the lawsuit was filed. Subject matter jurisdiction determines whether the matter should be heard in state or federal court. To satisfy requirements for a matter to be heard in federal court, you would need either (1) complete diversity (all of the defendants must reside in different states from the plaintiffs) and an amount in controversy that exceeds $75,000, or (2) federal question, where the case or controversy arises from federal law or the Constitution. If you chose to sue NiSource and Columbia Gas Transmission, you would not have diversity jurisdiction because one defendant, Columbia Gas Transmission, would reside in the same state as the plaintiffs. You would then need to see if your case involved a federal question.