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M & G Provision v. Midwest Engineering & Eqpt.

MARCH 3, 1975.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. NORMAN C. BARRY, Judge, presiding.


The plaintiff, M & G Provision Company (M & G), is a purveyor of meat and occupied the building at 185-187 South Water Market Street in Chicago. The building had an ammonia refrigeration system which refrigerates the basement and first two floors. The plaintiff, United Potato Company, owned the adjoining premises at 183 South Water Market. The defendant, Midwest Engineering & Equipment Company (Midwest), pursuant to a service contract, had undertaken to maintain, service and repair M & G's ammonia refrigeration system. On December 23, 1965, an explosion occurred at the premises occupied by M & G; and this suit was brought, alleging in Count I specific acts of negligence. Count III was based on the doctrine of res ipsa loquitur. Count III was stricken by the court and the case submitted to the jury on Count I only. A verdict was returned for the defendant; and this appeal is based solely on the plaintiffs' contention that the court erred in refusing to submit the theory of res ipsa loquitur to the jury.

The refrigeration system involved is "closed," that is, the refrigerant, ammonia, has been put in and the system sealed. In operation, the ammonia changes intermittently from a liquid to a gas and back to a liquid. The ammonia, when located in the compressors, is a hot gas which goes through lines to the condenser on the roof of the building where it is condensed from a gas to a liquid and cooled. The liquid is then piped down the system to two receivers located in the compressor room. The receivers are connected to two accumulators where the liquid collects and is reserved for later use to cool the building. The liquid ammonia lines run from the accumulators to the cooling coils located in the basement and on the first and second floors. Ammonia goes to these coils as needed and directed by an "expansion" or solenoid valve which expands the liquid ammonia to a semi-gaseous state. There were five solenoid valves at M & G: one in the basement, two on the first floor and two on the second.

The ammonia system was in the building when it was purchased by M & G in 1965; it had been installed in 1956 or 1957 and was too complex for M & G personnel. They never repaired or serviced the system. Service was delegated to the defendant, Midwest, which was the "exclusive repairer" of the equipment. It did not install the system. Under the terms of its agreement, Midwest was required to service the plant once a month and to make any other calls M & G wanted. M & G was billed once a month on a time-material basis. One of the monthly functions to be performed was the draining of oil from the accumulator tanks. The compressors required lubrication, and oil was fed through a crankshaft to lubricate the bearings and pistons within the compressors. Although a portion of the oil stayed within the system and was recycled, part of it settled in the accumulators with the result that the level of oil increased. That oil required periodical draining through the valve at the bottom of the accumulators. Removal of the oil, which increased the volume of ammonia in the accumulators, was a corrective measure. There was no automatic drain system because the oil did not accumulate quickly.

On December 23, at about 4 or 5 A.M., Fred Ginsberg, the vice president of M & G, walked through the plant on his daily inspection. He noticed the smell of ammonia on the second floor. Suspecting a leak, he immediately called Midwest and arranged for a repairman.

Lou Braunlin was the Midwest employee who normally serviced the unit and, coincidentally, had installed the unit in 1956 or 1957 while the employee of another service company. He arrived at approximately 7 A.M. and was directed by Ginsberg to the area of the leak, a valve on the second floor. Braunlin testified that he repaired the leak, which was in a solenoid valve on the second floor, and was directed by his dispatcher to give the system a regular check and drain the oil.

Oscar Ginsberg, the president of M & G, had arrived at the premises at 6:30 A.M. and saw Braunlin in the boiler room. At the time Braunlin was alone and was draining the oil; he was the only one working on the system on that particular morning and was completely in control of whatever was being done in the refrigeration system. During the normal draining process, oil came out like an oily gelatin and it took hours to clear the system. Braunlin had opened the valve through which the oil drained and it was coming out very slowly. Normally, the draining operation caused a slight smell of ammonia.

The compressor room within which Braunlin was working was located directly below the men's washroom on the second floor. The employees working on that floor began to complain of the smell to Oscar Ginsberg. The odor got progressively worse, and at 9:30 A.M. the work crew informed Oscar Ginsberg that the smell was getting exremely strong. Oscar then directed his brother Fred to check the compressor room. At the same time, Oscar Ginsberg saw Braunlin walk by and told him that the men reported they were getting a strong ammonia smell. Braunlin testified that he thought that "there was nothing to be alarmed about." He told Ginsberg he would be right back.

Fred Ginsberg reached the compressor room about 5 minutes after he had talked to his brother. When he opened the door to the room he saw that it was filled with ammonia. He knew it was ammonia because of the smell; he could not breathe. He described the atmosphere in the room as a "terrible white fog." He immediately closed the door and ran upstairs screaming for the fire department. As he reached the top of the stairs, an explosion blew him through the swinging doors which led to the loading dock. He was familiar with the smell of ammonia and there was no doubt in his mind that there was an ammonia haze in the compressor room. The explosion took place within minutes after Braunlin had left the premises.

Edward McLean was a qualified consulting engineer who testified for the plaintiffs. His experience included many years in gas and electrical engineering; and he had been involved in the design of gas systems. He arrived upon the premises 4 days after the occurrence. Repair work after the explosion had been done by Midwest, and they had immediately begun disassembling parts of the system. Consequently, McLean had to concede that he was "not personally aware of anything that Midwest did or did not do to the ammonia refrigeration system." It was his opinion that the cause of the explosion was an ammonia accumulation in the room up to the explosive limit. The probable source of ignition was the pilot light on the boiler. One of the purposes of his inspection was to rule out any other causes. He checked all natural gas lines, sewer sources, and available fluids. Of the various fluids used upon the premises, none was flammable; sewer gas was eliminated because there was no odor of it and, additionally, a check of the sewer track indicated it was full of water and was working. The boiler gas lines and gas meter were undamaged and working. Thus, he ruled out all causes other than ammonia.

He also concluded that the ammonia leak had not been caused by a breakdown of any portion of the ammonia system. He described the possibility that the ammonia came from the drain valve on the accumulator tank which Braunlin was draining: A valve is opened to drain the oil. After the oil is drained, an interphase between the oil and ammonia is reached. At that point there is a smell of ammonia. Thereafter, the ammonia rushes out because the accumulator is under pressure. Ammonia then makes a swishing sound, picks up moisture from the air and rises from a liquid to a gaseous vapor. When there is ammonia present in an open-valve situation, it has the appearance of a white fog.

Caryl Reaver at the time of the explosion was the service manager for Midwest and was Braunlin's supervisor. He had been in the refrigeration business for about 25 years; 8 of them in ammonia refrigeration service. He was personally familiar with the refrigeration system at M & G but did not have a schematic design of it. He visited the plant 2 days after the explosion, and a check valve was discovered under pipe covering and in a wall. (The record does not reflect who discovered it.) It was found between the solenoid and the accumulators. The check valve was not in the system when the plant first went into operation, nor was it installed by Midwest. A check valve acts as a block; it allows a substance to flow in one direction only. It is conceded by the plaintiffs that the check valve was improperly located. Reaver testified that Midwest found a cracked strainer located in the ammonia line to which the check valve had been attached. (The record does not reflect who discovered that either.) It was his opinion that the strainer had been damaged by pressure within the ammonia line.

Braunlin testified that he opened the quarter-inch purge valve and allowed the oil to run from the accumulator through a copper line which he had attached to the drain valve on the accumulator and which he had run into the bottom of a barrel which contained about 25 gallons of water. The process took approximately an hour and a half and the oil stopped draining before Braunlin left for his break. He disconnected the copper tube, shut off the purge valve and replaced the steel plug in the end of the purge valve to seal it. On explaining his reaction when Ginsberg told him that a strong odor of ammonia was detected by the men in the area directly above where he was working, he testified as follows:

"I assumed that he was referring to this ammonia odor from draining the oil, I didn't — couldn't think of any other thing that it could be because the plant was operating 100 per cent, everything was in order, there [were] no leaks or anything, so I assumed that he was referring to this odor from the draining of the oil, so I went ...

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