Closing arguments begin in natural gas explosion lawsuit

Aug. 31—Closing arguments in a lawsuit involving a fatal natural gas line explosion in rural south Bakersfield in 2015 began Tuesday in Kern County Superior Court.

And while the fourth attorney to speak to the jury did not have enough time to finish his presentation late Tuesday afternoon, what began to emerge from the four lawyers’ arguments was a huge gap between the damages requested by plaintiffs’ attorneys in the hundreds of millions of dollars and the significantly more modest suggestions by a defendants’ attorney totaling approximately $11 million to $12 million in damages.

Now it its fourth week, the civil trial stems from a massive explosion and fire that occurred Nov. 13, 2015, when the driver of a bulldozer who was “ripping” acreage near Houghton and Wible roads struck an underground, high-pressure natural gas transmission line owned by Pacific Gas & Electric.

The ruptured 34-inch gas line sent twin flames high into the air, destroyed a new dream home and several cars, and forced Gloria Ruckman to wrap her 17-day-old infant son into a jacket, press him against her chest and flee her new home, followed closely by her mother, the boy’s grandmother, Amalia Leal.

The plan was to drive away as fast as possible from the towers of flame behind the house. But the cars were already burning, as were the trees and even the grass.

Leal spent weeks in a local burn unit; her daughter, months. They both had charred skin that was slowly and painfully replaced by skin grafts.

“You must decide what the facts are … based on the evidence presented at this trial,” Judge Bernard Barmann Jr. told the jury as he provided nearly 90 minutes of complicated instructions to the 12 jurors and two alternates.

Rather than the more stringent standard of proof in criminal trials, Barmann informed the jurors that in civil trials, the requirement for proof is that something be more likely to be true than not true.

Earlier this month, one of the defendants, investor-owned utility PG&E, reached an undisclosed settlement with plaintiffs. However, the civil trial continued against plaintiffs Big N Deep Agricultural Development, the company whose soil ripper struck the underground pipeline and sparked the massive explosion, and Ag-Wise Enterprises, an agricultural management company that manages finances, processes bills and plans the development of farm production for clients and others.

Longtime Bakersfield attorney Daniel Rodriguez went first Tuesday, arguing that the tragic explosion that killed the dozer operator and left others injured happened because “companies and individuals made conscious decisions to ignore basic safety rules.”

Rodriguez accused defendants of prioritizing convenience and profit over safety.

In the end, he argued that PG&E; Big N Deep Agricultural Development, the company whose heavy equipment operator was killed when the soil ripper he was using struck the gas line; and Ag-Wise Enterprises, the farm management company that hired Big N Deep, are equally at fault and should pay equally in damages.

He suggested that the jury should return damages for Gloria Ruckman totaling about $111 million, while Ruckman’s mother is due approximately $72 million.

A second plaintiff’s attorney Joseph Low, who expressed anger at the defendants in the case during his closing, asked for about $56.9 million for his three clients, Gloria Ruckman’s husband, Robert Ruckman; their 6-year-old minor son; and Amelia Leal’s husband, Gill Leal.

Fresno-based attorney Theodore Hoppe told the jury he believes Gloria Ruckman and Amalia Leal deserve financial damages, but he placed those figures at a fraction of the figures suggested by plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Gloria Ruckman should receive $7 million, Hoppe said, and her mother deserves approximately $4 million in compensation.

The Ruckmans’ young son, whose brain, Low argued, has been permanently damaged by the explosion, should not receive damages, Hoppe argued. But if the jury disagrees and feels it must compensate the young boy, Hoppe suggested $1 million.

Orange County-based attorney James Baratta, who made it clear that he doesn’t believe his client, Ag-Wise Enterprises, is at fault in the disaster, did not have enough time to get deeply into his closing arguments Tuesday, and he did not mention dollar figures before the court was adjourned for the day.

But he did call out Rodriguez for “flipping the script” during the trial by first concentrating on PG&E as the primary culprit in the incident — but later training his sights on the remaining defendants after PG&E settled.

Baratta promised to go deeper when he resumes his closing arguments Wednesday morning.

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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