Union Carbide & Carbon Corp. v. Peters

Decision Date04 August 1953
Docket NumberNo. 6610.,6610.
Citation206 F.2d 366
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

J. Campbell Palmer, III, Charleston, W. Va., for appellant.

E. Glenn Robinson and Charles C. Wise, Jr., Charleston, W. Va. (Campbell, McClintic, James & Wise, Charleston, W. Va., on brief), for appellees.

Before PARKER, Chief Judge, and SOPER and DOBIE, Circuit Judges.

DOBIE, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, in favor of the plaintiffs, father and son, in their separate actions to recover damages for medical expenses and personal injuries respectively, alleged to have been caused by defendant's negligence. The actions were consolidated and tried without a jury. The District Court found for the plaintiffs, awarding the sum of $3,000.00 for medical expenses and $10,000.00 for personal injuries. Defendant's motion to set aside the findings of the Court, to reduce the amount of the awards, or in the alternative to enter judgment for the defendant non obstante veredicto was overruled and from the judgment of the Court, entered April 9, 1953, the defendant has appealed.

Defendant is a manufacturer of chemical products and various kinds of gases are part of its raw materials. One of its largest plants is located in South Charleston, West Virginia, on the south bank, and on an island, of the Kanawha River, about five miles west of and downstream from Charleston. To transport gas to this plant, defendant maintains and operates some 340 miles of high pressure pipe lines.

On the north bank of the river, about ten miles upstream from Charleston, is the defendant's Diamond Plant. There gases are treated, mixed, recompressed and transmitted by pipe lines to South Charleston. Two six-inch and two four-inch pipe lines cross under the river from the Diamond Plant to the south shore. These lines are owned by the defendant and are used to transport gases under pressures ranging from 100-145 pounds per square inch.

On the river bank at each end of the river crossing are valves or gates, where the gases can be shut off from flowing through the pipe lines, or sent through other or different lines. These valves or gates are situated in a sunken box known as a valve box. The gate valve box at the scene of the accident here involved was originally constructed of wood about 1927. The four pipe lines running through it were laid during the years 1927 to 1936.

Some three to five weeks prior to the accident, defendant replaced the wooden box with a new box constructed principally of cinder blocks. This new gate box, as well as the old one, was approximately eight feet square and five feet deep. Located on the south bank of the river about 15 feet from the water line, it was level with the ground on the uphill side, and about a foot or so above ground on the downhill or river side. The top of the box was covered by a two-section wooden latticed platform. One section was three feet by seven feet, weighing 105 pounds, the other four feet by seven feet, weighing 135 pounds. The planks in each section were oak or pine, two by twelve inches, held together with two battens and spaced one to two inches apart.

For many years persons residing in the area gathered on the river bank for fishing and other pursuits. The box in question was used as a platform upon which to sit. Children in the neighborhood habitually used the area as a playground, and were accustomed to playing on and around the gate box, running over it and jumping off it. Defendant knew of these practices but took no steps to prohibit or discourage them.

On October 26, 1951, Wayne Stanley, a boy fourteen years of age, was assisting a neighbor in digging a basement. During a rest period he walked to defendant's gate box nearby. While on top of the box he accidentally dropped a cigarette lighter belonging to his mother through the cracks in one of the box lids. He raised up the smaller lid and called for the infant plaintiff, Donald Peters, then thirteen years of age, to assist him in his efforts to retrieve the lighter. While Stanley held up the lid, plaintiff, who was smaller in physical stature, jumped down into the box, picked up the lighter and attempted to determine whether it was still in good working order.

As Stanley was about to tell him not to try the lighter, the infant plaintiff did so. The spark produced caused a nonexplosive, flash fire of leaking gases which had accumulated in the gate box, burning young Peters severely. He was helped out of the box and taken to a nearby hospital where he remained for thirty-three days. After being incapacitated for some two months, he returned to school, but as a result of the accident, sustained severe scars on the back surfaces of both hands, flexion contracture of the little finger of the left hand, and several keloid scars on his face, ears and neck. At the trial it appeared from the medical testimony that the complete eradication of these injuries could not be expected, although subsequent operations would likely produce ameliorating results.

After plaintiff was removed to the hospital, men living in the area immediately attempted to extinguish the fires still burning in the gate box. One witness stated that the fires continued to burn from 35 to 45 minutes after the accident, while another set the time as 30 to 40 minutes. All of these disinterested witnesses stated that there was leakage of gas from each of the three gate valves in the box and that each of those leaks was burning when they reached the scene. There was also a fourth leak in a weld in one of the two four-inch lines, characterized by some of the witnesses as a "pinhole" leak.

With respect to the issue of the defendant's negligence, the District Court made the following pertinent findings of fact:

"Defendant\'s gate valve installation in the box at Chesapeake was a dangerous instrumentality.
* * * * * *
"It was not the habit of children or anyone other than defendant\'s agents to go inside the gate box; but under the circumstances, with children playing around and on the box defendant should reasonably have foreseen that if some valuable article were dropped through the cracks a child would enter the box to retrieve the article.
"Defendant exercised reasonable care in providing for inspections of the pipes and valves in the gate box; but the circumstances of the accident, particularly the existence of four large leaks, demonstrate that such inspections were ineffective.
"Defendant did not exercise reasonable care, but was negligent in the installation and/or maintenance of the gate valves, in that gas was permitted to escape from all three gate valves to the extent that when lighted, the escaping gas formed a flame from eight to twenty inches in length. This negligence of defendant is established by the circumstances of the case, notwithstanding testimony of its agents that proper installation and maintenance took place. It is not shown that the pinhole leak in the spool was due to negligence of the defendant; but it is shown by a preponderance of evidence that the accumulation of gas came from the gate valves rather than from the pinhole leak; or at all events, that the escaping gas from the valve stems alone would probably have caused the accident."

On the basis of these findings, the District Judge concluded:

"It was the duty of defendant to exercise reasonable care to avoid injury to any children who might play around and upon the gate box; and this duty extended to Donald Wayne Peters who, though a trespasser while in the gate box, was there for the purpose of retrieving an article which had been dropped during the ordinary course of play of other children. It is not necessary that defendant should be able to foresee the exact circumstances attending the accident, but it was reasonably required to foresee that in the course of play around the box some object might be dropped inside through the cracks which would be valuable enough to cause the child to go inside the box to get it out."

The defendant introduced evidence tending to show that its lines were composed of the best obtainable welded pipe, that its gate valves were of standard construction containing factory inserted and tested packing, that its gate valve boxes were of the latest and best possible design, and that a crew of trained men were employed to make periodic inspection and repair of its installations. Defendant's evidence tended to establish that in both construction and maintenance, its activities and precautions were in accord with the customary practices of the industry. Our view of the case, however, makes it unnecessary for us to develop this...

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6 cases
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • 6 Noviembre 1963
    ...v. Baisden, 128 W.Vt. 126, 35 S.E.2d 728 (1945); see Harper v. Cook, 139 W.Va. 917, 82 S.E.2d 427 (1954). 6 Union Carbide & Carbon Corp. v. Peters, 206 F.2d 366 (4th Cir. 1953); French v. Sinkford, 132 W.Va. 66, 54 S. E.2d 38 (1948); Mills v. Virginian Ry., 85 W.Va. 729, 102 S.E. 604 (1920)......
  • Allstate Ins. Co. v. Town of Ville Platte
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US
    • 27 Octubre 1972
    ...v. Hourgettes, 67 So.2d 737 (La.App.Orl.1953); Pickett v. Kyger, 151 Mont. 87, 439 P.2d 57 (S.C.Mont.1968); Union Carbide & Carbon Corp. v. Peters, 206 F.2d 366 (U.S. 4 Cir. 1953); Moore v. Jefferson Distilling & Denaturing Co., 169 La. 1156, 126 So. 691 (1930); Geismar v. General Gas Corpo......
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • 8 Diciembre 1955
    ...injury? (3) Was Majher himself guilty of such conduct as would in law bar him from recovery? In Union Carbide & Carbon Corporation v. Peters, 4 Cir., 206 F.2d 366, 369-370, (a case arising in West Virginia), we "Not every act of carelessness or inadvertence may be characterized as negligenc......
  • Wooldridge Manufacturing Company v. United States
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — District of Columbia Circuit
    • 26 Abril 1956
    ...94 L.Ed. 1388; States S. S. Co. v. Rothschild International Steve. Co., 9 Cir., 1953, 205 F.2d 253, 256; Union Carbide & Carbon Corp. v. Peters, 4 Cir., 1953, 206 F.2d 366, 370; Franceschi v. De Tord, 1 Cir., 1934, 71 F.2d 95, ...
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