Is a Gas Company Liable for Injuries Caused by a Leak In Pipes Not Installed by It ?
In Clare v. Bond County Gas Co., 356 Ill. 241, 190 N.E. 278 (1934), the plaintiff operated a shop in a building that had been piped for natural gas. Clare, 356 Ill. at 242. In 1931, the natural gas delivered to the building was odorless. Clare, 356 Ill. at 243.
The plaintiff bought a gas stove for heat and hired a plumber to install it.
After the installation, the plaintiff noticed an offensive odor that gave her a headache and irritated her eyes and respiratory organs. Clare, 356 Ill. at 242.
The plaintiff notified the gas company, whose president visited the shop with the plumber and concluded that the odor was caused by the fumes of burned gas.
The company president made several visits and recommended various remedies, including checking the stove and the gas meter.
The suggestions were implemented, but the problem continued. Clare, 356 Ill. at 242.
The smell was so strong in the closet where the gas meter was located that the plaintiff kept the closet door closed.
The source of the odor could not be found. Clare, 356 Ill. at 242.
Several weeks later, a friend of the plaintiff was looking for a screwdriver in the dark closet and lit a match to see.
An explosion occurred, blowing apart the floor.
An investigation disclosed that a gas pipe running beneath the floor contained holes caused by rust.
The gas that escaped from the pipe had accumulated in the closet and was ignited by the match. Clare, 356 Ill. at 242-43.
The gas company presented evidence that some natural gas has a faint odor, if confined to a small room, but the gas furnished by the company had none at all, and that the fumes from burned gas affect the nose and eyes, but unburned gas does not.
The company's president made several attempts to locate the odor's source, he had no knowledge that gas was escaping, and the plaintiff's complaints of eye and respiratory irritation convinced him that the trouble came from burned gas fumes. Clare, 356 Ill. at 243.
The plaintiff obtained a judgment against the gas company. on appeal, the company argued that "there was no evidence in the record to warrant the finding that it the gas company had notice and knowledge that the pipes were leaking and gas was escaping into the building; that without such notice or knowledge there was no duty incumbent upon it to shut off the gas supply." Clare, 356 Ill. at 243.
The Clare court ruled for the gas company, relying on established common law: "In the absence of notice of defects it is not incumbent upon a gas company to exercise reasonable care to ascertain whether or not service pipes under the control of the property owner or the consumer are fit for the furnishing of gas." Clare, 356 Ill. at 244.
The court held that, where a gas company does not install the pipes or fixtures on a customer's premises, does not own them, and has no control over them, the company is not responsible for their condition or for their maintenance, and therefore the company is not liable for injuries caused by a leak therein of which the company had no knowledge. Clare, 356 Ill. at 244.
The Clare court looked to the common law as it had evolved to that time, and Clare continues to accord with our understanding of the common-law rule.