PUNITIVE DAMAGES FOR PIPELINE DEATHS? MAYBE|
September 25, 1999
Jim Brunner, Seattle Times
BELLINGHAM - The families of two 10-year-old boys killed in
the June 10 Olympic Pipe Line explosion and fire can't seek
punitive damages under Washington law - but may be able to
seek such damages under Texas law, a Whatcom County judge
Whether Texas law applies will depend on what facts emerge
from the ongoing investigation into the pipeline operator's actions,
Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Steven Mura said
yesterday. The pipeline company's managing partner is based in
The ruling came during the first court hearing in the wrongful-death
lawsuits brought by the families of Stephen Tsiorvas and Wade
King, who were fatally burned while playing near Whatcom
Creek after 277,000 gallons of gasoline spilled from a ruptured
pipe operated by Olympic Pipe Line.
Touched off by a fireplace lighter lit by one of the boys, the
gasoline exploded into a fireball that scorched a mile and a half of
creek bed and sent black smoke billowing into the sky.
Liam Wood, 18, also died after being overcome by gas fumes
while fly-fishing along the stream. His family has not filed a lawsuit.
The Tsiorvas-King lawsuits name Olympic, several company
employees, and Equilon Enterprises, the Houston-based oil
company that is the managing partner of Olympic Pipe Line,
headquartered in Renton.
It is Equilon's Texas connection that may leave the door open for
punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded on top of
whatever money might be awarded for actual losses. They are
used to punish civil offenders for outrageous conduct.
Mura yesterday agreed with Olympic attorney Richard Allen, who
argued that Washington law does not generally permit punitive
damages - a policy repeatedly upheld by the state Supreme
"This court does not have the authority to overturn that," Mura
Whether the families will be able to rely on Texas law to claim
punitive damages from Olympic or Equilon will likely depend on
evidence uncovered in the ongoing National Transportation Safety
Board investigation to determine what caused the pipeline rupture
and why operators failed to immediately notice it.
That investigation has been hindered by the refusal of eight
Olympic workers to speak with investigators. The workers,
worried about possible criminal charges in the case, have invoked
their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
David Beninger, the attorney representing the Tsiorvas and King
families, said he'll argue that decisions made at the company's
Texas headquarters contributed to the rupture in the 30-year-old
"The fuse for this bomb was lit in Texas and just happened to
explode in Washington," Beninger said.
Olympic representatives have defended the company's safety
record and said construction work by Bellingham city contractors
near the pipeline may have damaged the pipe.
Seattle Times-- Seattle Times Website
Olympic Pipeline-- Olympic Pipeline Company Website