Sacramento Explosion Suit Seeks Over $1 Million From Fire Department

A Sacramento homeowner whose vacant rental property was destroyed in a natural gas explosion in 2010, is suing the Sacramento City Fire Department for over $1 million.

Christopher Liu’s property was destroyed on July 5, 2010 in an explosion that occurred as firefighters were entering the structure to investigate the source of a gas leak. Four firefighters were injured in the blast, three seriously.

The leak was caused by a disgruntled neighbor, Robert W. Durst, who had previously done plumbing work for Liu. Drust was allegedly upset with Liu because Liu stiffed him $750 for the work.  

According to police, Drust admitted that he broke into the house, opened the gas valve in the kitchen, and left a candle burning in the living room distant from the gas leak. When firefighters arrived to investigate a strong gas smell coming from the house, Drust merely watched as the firefighters forced open the door of the house prompting the explosion. Witnesses said Drust acted disinterested as the event played itself out.

For his part, Liu was compensated by his insurance company $150,000 for the damage to his vacant structure. His suit, which he filed without the aid of an attorney, claims the firefighters were “irresponsible, negligent, and/or criminal” in the manner in which they responded to the incident. The guy who stiffed the plumber $750, and refused to hire a lawyer, is seeking $1,008,000 in damages, including $500,000 for “for personal distress for being implicated in the media as an arson suspect.”

Earlier this week, Drust was sentenced to 17 years in prison. Outside the courtroom, Lui was asked about why he filed his suit. His heartless reply: “They should have been more careful.  .. There was no fire going on… there was no reason for them to open the door. … I want them to realize they didn’t handle the situation properly.”  What a peach.

The lawsuit alleges the fire department should have secured the scene and waited for “experts” from Pacific Gas & Electric to respond because they were better equipped to handle gas leaks. The lawsuit hypothesizes that the firefighters somehow created a spark that prompted the explosion.

While most states have taken an aggressive approach to frivolous lawsuits, California is one state that appears to have lagged behind the rest of the country. Check out this article on the problem.

In most states, a Rule 11 sanction would likely await Mr. Liu. In states that follow the Federal Rules of Civil Procedures, Rule 11 reads as follows:

b) Representations to the Court. By presenting to the court a pleading, written motion, or other paper—whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating it—an attorney or unrepresented party certifies that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances:

(1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass, cause unnecessary delay, or needlessly increase the cost of litigation;

(2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for extending, modifying, or reversing existing law or for establishing new law;

(3) the factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, will likely have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and

(4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on belief or a lack of information.

(c) Sanctions.

(1) In General. If, after notice and a reasonable opportunity to respond, the court determines that Rule 11(b) has been violated, the court may impose an appropriate sanction on any attorney, law firm, or party that violated the rule or is responsible for the violation. …

 

Mr. Liu would have a very difficult time showing he had a good faith basis to support his allegations in a state that adopts Rule 11. Speculation would not cut it. He would need to have an expert witness willing to testify that it is more likely than not that the source of the spark that caused the explosion was something that the firefighters did rather than the candle or some other factor. He would also require expert testimony to show that the reasonably prudent fire department would have waited for PG&E to arrive on scene. I’m doubting as a pro se litigant he has experts lined up for either.

However, in California it looks to be just another frivolous suit tying up the legal system.

More on the case.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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