The Fourth of July should be about celebrating America while viewing fireworks safely, and what better way to celebrate than from a boat. For recent Cronauer Law clients, July 4, 2020, a day of pleasure turned into one of terror.
July 4, 2020 was the first time our client had used his boat since having his engine replaced at a local repair shop. Once arriving at the boat launch, the boat was backed down the ramp and placed in the water without incident. Before the motor was started, the client opened the engine bay cover in order to let any gas vapor out, then activated the bilge pump after seeing liquid in the bottom of the engine bay. Fortunately, leaving the engine bay open likely saved lives or at least minimized the extend of the harm that was to follow.
After turning on the bilge pump, in an instant, a flash fire occurred and engulfed the entire boat in flames. The boat owner was in the middle of the boat, while his son was standing in the rear and right in the middle of the flash fire. The flash fire caused 3rd degree burns for the son standing near the engine bay. Because the engine bay was open, the explosion was contained to a flash fire rather than an explosion with shrapnel. The open bay allowed the flames escape from the engine bay without forcing open the cover as is typical with an explosion.
Nicholas Cronauer of Cronauer Law, LLP was luckily hired early on to investigate the explosion, and due to being brought in early, him and his team were able to preserve key evidence, retain pivotal experts for immediate inspection, and identify exactly what happened, even though the boat was left in charred remains, as can be clearly seen below:
Cases where a fire is involved are challenging because the evidence that can be salvaged is damaged or lost in the inferno.
Our client took his boat to the water with the expectation that it would be safe to operate after spending thousands of dollars to have it repaired. The boat was not safe to operate. The repair company initially denied any fault and blamed the boat owner for not allowing potential gas vapors to leave the engine bay before ignition. It also claimed it tested the boat and since it did not explode for them, it could not have been anything with their workmanship.
Cronauer Law was retained to examine this case and find out what happened and seek justice for two people who were severely burned and unnecessarily burned. This case is key to why it is very important to retain an attorney early and often. If there is any delay, evidence can get lost. In this case, the boat was taken to a tow yard and ready to be junked; if it was junked, it would be impossible to determine the cause of the explosion and therefore unlikely to make any case nor recover any answers nor semblance of justice. Cronauer Law uses top experts from around the country, and the expert employed in this case was involved in the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash case.
We immediately demanded the boat to be preserved by the tow yard, and for any paperwork such as maintenance logs and accounting records to be made available for our team to review from the repair shop. The tow yard preserved the boat, permitting physical and drone inspections by various experts.
In order for an explosion to occur, you need two things: a fuel source and an ignition source. You don’t necessarily need both to prove a fire case because you can infer one from the other. In this case, after two inspections, we were able to conclusively prove both, which is important from a resolution stand point because it takes away the lame excuses ordinarily raised by the insurance company.
The fuel level sender is used for determining the fuel level that is reported by the gas gauge. It is a rigid aluminum section with a cork float on the distal end and a semi-rotary potentiometer on the mounting end. The mounting is an aluminum circular flange with 5 holes to bolt the unit onto the top of the fuel tank. The five bolts are received by threaded nuts molded into the plastic fuel tank top. Our inspection revealed that all 5 bolts were not in the flange holes and only one bolt was found in the fuel sender area. Since the 5 bolts are the fastening hardware, the fuel sender was adrift and could not seal the approximately 2-inch hole in the top of the fuel tank where the sender is mounted. Therefore, with the combination of the right fuel amount and pitch attitude of the vessel fuel can leak out of the mounting opening and into the bilge of the boat. Notably, the client reported that before he backed the boat into the water, he had filled up the boat with gas at the gas station, so the fuel source was able to pour out once he backed down the ramp.
The repair shop denied having ever accessing the fuel lever sender, did not replace it, and therefore said they where not responsible for the source of the fuel leak and subsequent explosion. They claimed it was a lack of maintenance by the boat owner the resulted in five bolts being missing from the fuel tank that served as a seal.
Our expert identified the ignition source immediately upon inspection. Examination of the batteries revealed loosened bolt/stud nuts that secure the cables and wires to the battery terminals, creating a gap between the nuts and terminal. Marine application batteries enjoy both and standard lead connection post as well as a bolt/stud molded into a lead base for securing cables and wires. This installation utilized the bold/stud method. The wires and cables terminate with a ring connector that is crimped and/or soldered on and then positioned on the bolt/stud. A hex machine nut then is threaded onto the bolt/stud and torqued down to clamp up the ring terminals to the battery connections creating a secure electrical bond. Standard safe practices always include a lock washer to be included in the stack up. This ensures proper torqueing and mitigates loosening over time due to thermal changes, stresses, and vibrations. None of the battery connections employed a safety lock washer.
At inspection, our expert applied minimal finger rotation force to all the hex machine nuts. None were tight and all could be rotated with ease. There was also a gap between the terminal and the nut. The gap between the nut and the terminal created a spark upon initiating the bilge pump. Our expert was able to opine that if the nuts were properly fastened, the battery terminal would not spark.
What we were able to prove, resulting in recovering seven figure insurance policy limits without filing a lawsuit, was that the launch activity caused the boat and fuel tank to pitch back (aft). Since the fuel tank was full of gasoline, the fuel poured out of the tank via the loose fuel sender opening and spilling into the engine bay.
Now knowing the source and cause of the fire, we were able to piece together what the repair shop did do to the boat that caused the explosion. We knew that the boat repair shop replaced the vessel’s engine, additional support devices, hoses and components, and also replaced the batteries and the fuel lines. These two items are critically causal to the defective workmanship that led to this avoidable tragedy.
From the work order invoice, the charge for the fuel line was $100.00. Replacing the fuel line meant the boat repair shop was in the general area of the fuel lever sender and, even if they did not replace it as they claimed, they should have seen the lack of bolts present. We also maintained it lacked common sense that they would not have to access the fuel lever sender when replacing an engine and its main fuel line.
The fuel line that was replaced to the fuel tank nipple where the fuel line attaches is approximately 8 inches from the fuel level sender. When working and repairing in a close proximity area, a diligent, prudent, trained and experienced technician also has the responsibility to check the adjacent mechanics, components, fixtures and devices for their working integrity and general proper installation even if it doesn’t involve the exact component being removed and replaced. The practice of inspecting and checking the overall system and noting discrepancies is general safety, professionalism, and courtesy.
While we knew the repair shop was negligent upon intake of this case, we had to prove how, which we did.
• Had the repair shop properly installed the battery and the terminals and properly tightened and torqued the nuts, the fuel would not have been sparked with the bilge pump activation and this tragedy avoided. The worst that would have happened to our clients would perhaps be stuck on the open water because the gas has poured out of the tank. Again, without an ignition source gas cannot ignite.
• With access to the inner workings of the fuel tank, the repair shop had the opportunity to properly seal the tank from ever spilling fuel, and prevent the flammable vapors and liquid from forming in the short amount of time our clients had the boat
After Cronauer Law, through the use of top experts, found evidence that undeniably proved the repair shop was at fault for the tragic event that occurred on that Fourth of July holiday, the insurance company agreed to resolve this case for their seven figure policy limits without a lawsuit being filed.
Most importantly, both people have recovered well, their medical bills paid, and thanks to great medical care, their burns have healed without substantial disfigurement.
If any attorney or firm tells you they will investigate their case once the lawsuit is filed, that is generally too late for most serious injury cases. Don’t wait nor delay because without evidence there is no case and with evidence being obtained and reviewed early on, cases can be resolved without years of litigation.