Recently, our own Sam Coffey was invited to contribute to the Daily Business Review on Combating Corporate Greed as it Relates to the PizzaFire Explosion.
Unfortunately, the incidence of companies placing profits ahead of the health, safety and rights of individuals has become a common issue in our court systems
We’re seeing this drama play out in Broward County in the ongoing aftermath of the July 6, 2019, violent explosion that ripped through the Plantation Mall on a quiet holiday weekend. The event left the well-known retail center looking like a war zone after a bombing. Skeletons of buildings remained and the sight of people stumbling from the rubble enveloped in smoke is etched in our memories.
It was a miracle that there weren’t any deaths. But many of those at the mall on that morning are suffering from PTSD and continue to avoid places such as malls, movie theatres and concerts. Others have injuries that will last a lifetime. Some may never be able to return to work.
As our firm continues to represent a majority of those injured, we are continually developing new strategies on behalf of our clients.
Passing the Buck
Some settlements have been made, but the defendants—Tampa Electric Company (TECO) and mall owners and managers Eden and Locust—cling to egregious strategies focused on passing the buck, internal finger-pointing, coverups and ongoing delays. These are typical strategies from defendants with deep pockets and armies of high-priced attorneys.
The case is moving along with our recent actions to amend our original complaint to add claims for punitive damages against TECO, Eden and Locust. Both amendments show how their actions constitute a total abandonment of corporate responsibility in regard to safety. Our goal is to show that this disregard for rules and laws is a risk to society. As we’ve seen in many other personal injury cases, we must aggressively stand up for the average person and hold these companies accountable and make them pay for injuries, ruined lives careers, and damaged mental health.
Greed on Display
This type of greed has been exposed in many court cases that have shown defendants displaying indifference and conscious disregard for the potential of severe injury, health problems and death. Much publicized cases involving the Ford Pinto (exploding gas tank), Big Tobacco and Pharma, asbestos, and Johnson & Johnson’s talcum come to mind. All of these cases have common denominators: Lengthy legal strategies that force plaintiffs to accept paltry settlements and complex maneuvering positioning them as innocent.
The other common denominator is that in these and other cases the defendants knew of the potential dangers of a situation or product and chose to ignore the warnings simply because it was too expensive or inconvenient to fix the problem. In other words, there have been massive coverups.
These types of cases were made even more apparent in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” which chronicled how people in California suffered from groundwater contamination and received huge settlements from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
These situations are all prevalent in the Plantation Mall case. And while money doesn’t cure their injuries it does provide plaintiffs with some normalcy and relief.
The Heart of the Case
At the heart of this case is the total mishandling by these parties to respond responsibly to the gas turnoff request made by the owner of Pizza Fire restaurant on Dec. 13, 2018. In short, the order was never properly executed. Records show that minutes after this request was processed, the order was cancelled. TECO blames a computer “glitch,” passing the blame to the computer software company.
This one issue led to the explosion 197 days later when an air-conditioning cycle ignited the gas. At that point egregious strategies of passing the buck, internal finger-pointing, coverups and delays ensued.
In the course of our investigation it has become obvious that punitive damages are in order since all criteria are met since the “defendants were personally guilty of intentional misconduct or gross negligence. The evidence against TECO shows:
- It knew natural gas lines must be handled safely
- Knew there was an explosion risk
- Knew explosions can kill people
- Knew that the Pizza Fire gas line was supposed to be turned off
- Knew it wasn’t shut off
No Follow Through
In a recorded phone call, a service representative said the gas line would be turned off “tomorrow.” One hundred and ninety-seven days later the explosion occurred since the line was never capped. With this knowledge, TECO did nothing to change conduct that caused these risks. Our investigation and discovery process also shows that TECO, rather than going to the expense of manually turning off the line, opted to do nothing. This is a common problem since we found that many homes in the area had the same problem in that gas lines were not turned off when requested. Thankfully, they didn’t have the tragic results we saw at the Plantation Mall, but a pattern has emerged.
The situation involving Edens and Locust are similar. As the developer, owner and operator of more than 100 malls throughout the country, Edens has a duty to ensure that it maintains safe properties. Locust, a limited liability holding company owned by Edens, managed the Plantation Mall. Both, however, enacted policies that consciously disregarded the well-being of others by prioritizing efficiency, cost savings, and profits over safety. We can prove the following:
- Defendants didn’t have policies or employee training for gas line safety
- Company personnel didn’t inspect abandoned units
- Never complied with FLBC’s mandate to place a safety cap on the end of the open gas line
- It is clear that our evidence clearly exceeds a “reasonable basis for recovery of punitive damages.”
To make matters worse, TECO concealed facts from federal, state, and local investigators. This concealment shows consciousness of wrongful conduct and supports the imposition of punitive damages.
This is a complex case that illustrates the challenges everyday people face when going against huge, wealthy corporations. We hope to prevail on this long journey to secure financial and emotional relief for those suffering as a result of the inactions of these organizations.
Samuel A. Coffey is the managing partner of Coffey McPharlin Trial Law in Fort Lauderdale. They focus on trucking accidents, traumatic brain injury and catastrophic personal injury cases. Contact Coffey at email@example.com.