When my 28-year-old client went to work one morning driving a logging truck, he never imagined he would be set on fire by a fuel explosion. Everything seemed normal as he pulled his logging truck up to the above-ground diesel supply tank to refill his truck and go fetch his last load of pine logs for the day. While pumping the fuel, it suddenly exploded. Neighbors heard the explosion and found him on fire and laying in their yard. They quickly helped put out the flames and covered him with a blanket. The EMTs called for a life flight helicopter.
Mystery #1 — How Could the Diesel Explode?
Short answer – it won’t. Diesel has a minimum flash point of 125 degrees – meaning it will not even burn until it is heated to 125 degrees. In fact, if you throw a match in a bucket of room temperature diesel, it will put out the match!
The state fire investigator took fuel samples from the supply tank. Testing revealed that the fuel was not diesel, but gasoline. Gas has a flash point of about negative 49 degrees and is much more volatile and explosive. Thus, my client was unknowingly pumping gasoline into his diesel truck. It appeared that the oil company who serviced the tank had mistakenly filled it with gasoline instead of diesel – a claim the oil company vehemently denied. The oil company also pointed the finger at a second oil company who had occasionally filled the supply tank.
We hired a chemistry expert in gasoline. We learned that each company has its own unique chemical “signature” of additives for gasoline. Analyzing samples from the tank, we were able to determine that the second oil company produced the gasoline that exploded.
Mystery #2 – What Sparked The Explosion?
Both oil companies pointed the finger squarely at my client, claiming he lit a match. One oil company sent out an investigator the next day who took photos of a pack of open matches neatly laying on the step of my client’s truck. We immediately smelled a rat. The explosion blew my client’s cell phone (which he was holding in his hand) all the way across the street. If my client was holding a pack of open matches, the explosion would certainly have blown the box out of his hand and spilled the matches – not left an open box neatly placed on the step with none of them spilled out.
Further, we hired an expert in fuel tank equipment and set up. His analysis provided a scientific explanation for the explosion. The specific additive found in this fuel creates a static charge as it tumbles down a rubber hose UNLESS the hose is UL approved for the use of gasoline. The law required the use of a UL hose, but the first oil company who set up the tank failed to use one. The oil company also failed to properly ground the tank. So, our expert was able to determine that the “spark” came from a static charge buildup which sparked when the metal nozzle touched the metal opening of the truck’s tank as my client was filling it.
Ultimately, the week before we were set for trial, both oil companies (the one who improperly set up the tank and the one who mistakenly filled it with gas) paid their policy limits of $5 Million to resolve this “mystery” explosion case.