Felecita Del Carmen Canas, et al v. Centerpoint Energy

Plaintiffs' Memorandum of Law on the Filed Tariff Doctrine and how it Does not Protect a Gas Utility from Tort Liability

by Alan Winograd
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Felecita Del Carmen Canas was burned alive in a gas explosion. She left three orphans. Millions and millions of underground pipelines transport gas from public utility companies to our homes, schools and businesses. Most of the time this goes on without incident. But now and then gas does leak causing huge explosions. Gas explosions cause horrific death and injury and destruction of property, like the one that happened in San Bruno, CA. Millions of gas leaks occur every day, but most are too small to result in explosions.

When gas leaks, we expect to smell "rotten eggs." This is the way we are warned when there is a gas leak so we have enough time to escape the area and get help. So why do people continue to die in gas explosions if the odor is there to warn them to leave? Because, under certain circumstances, a leak may occur without any odor. Gas is naturally odorless. Odorant is added by the gas utility to the gas before it goes to your home. When gas leaks from a pipe, it may migrate underground from outside to inside your house. As it migrates through the soil, the odorant may filter out of the gas so by the time it reaches your house it has no smell. This is known as "odor fade". Because of odor fade, Felecita was unable to smell the gas until it was too late. We assert that Centerpoint has known about "odor fade" for years and has a duty to warn its customers about it.

We were just about to go to trial when Centerpoint's lawyers pulled the file tariff doctrine out of their rectums. Centerpoint's lawyers argued that it is not responsible for Felecita's death because the tariff it filed with the state excludes liability for any leaks occurring on the customer's side of the piping except under strict circumstances not present here. Public utilities file rate agreements with the state which approve the rate the utility may charge customers for their gas. Centerpoint alleges the filed tariff regulates every matter between a gas utility and its customers. The original purpose of the filed tariff doctrine was to prohibit rate suits by customers since the rates charged were regulated by the state and it could potentially subject a gas utility to thousand of law suits. Not surprisingly, utilities have included broader and broader liability limitations with each new rate filing.

It is preposterous that a this doctrine could be used to immunize Centerpoint and other billion dollar utility companies from responsibility for killing and maiming its customers and destroying their property.

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Reference Info: Legal Memoranda: Post-Trial Motions | State, 5th Circuit, Texas | United States

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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