Supreme Court won't accept negligence claim without expert testimony

By Stephanie Ostrowski | Feb 14, 2013

CHARLESTON – Exposure to carbon monoxide allegedly caused by a malfunctioning home furnace or furnace ventilation system is why the Thompson family filed a complaint against the gas company, Dominion Hope.

A ruling made in a memorandum decision filed by the state Supreme Court of Appeals on Feb. 11 found no merit in the their argument and affirmed the circuit court’s order.

The issue originated when the Dominion Hope serviceman disconnected gas service to the family for failing to pay their bill. After a series of events, the petitioners claimed negligence.

The serviceman generated a “red tag” to indicate the furnace had an unsafe ventilation pipe. Gas service was restored to the home and the gas to the furnace was left off. Laypeople were hired by the petitioners to fix the furnace, and the next day the landlord sent a certified HVAC repairman.

Petitioners alleged that the serviceman owed a duty of care not to restore gas service because the furnace was unsafe.

Dominion Hope moved for a summary judgment, claiming that petitioners failed to produce a witness to testify on Dominion Hope’s standard of care and that petitioners’ allegations that the repairs should have been examined are baseless.

Dominion Hope also argued that its repairman followed proper safety procedures, and without an expert, petitioners cannot dispute the procedures were not within accepted industry standard.

In Harrison County Circuit Court, Dominion Hope’s motion for summary judgment was granted due to the petitioners not providing an expert to testify on the standard of care in the industry. Petitioners could not prove that Dominion Hope performed any violations, the ruling held.

On appeal, the petitioners argued whether Dominion Hope gave enough notice of the dangerous conditions of the furnace’s ventilation pipe and also whether it was negligent to restore gas service under dangerous conditions.

The circuit court erred in requiring expert testimony since state law does not require a standard of care expert outside of medical negligence, the Thompsons claimed.

In response, Dominion Hope argued that the circuit court correctly found that an expert was needed since an ordinary person would not know the correct duties of a gas serviceperson.

Dominion Hope also argued that summary judgment was proper and no juror could find any errors in duty under reasonable standard.

On appeal, there was no error found in the circuit court’s failure to discuss nonbinding precedent in its decision. The court declined to adopt a ruling from a case in Virginia.

“In the present case, Petitioners have not shown any breach of a duty owed by Dominion Hope,” the opinion says.
All five justices concurred in the opinion.

More News

The Record Network