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 has ruled.

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 Houston.

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 Court.

"This court does not have the authority to overturn that," Mura said.

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 pipeline.

"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.


Related Links
  • Seattle Times-- Seattle Times Website
  • Olympic Pipeline-- Olympic Pipeline Company Website


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