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Adams v. Northern Illinois Gas Company

August 26, 2002

CHRISTY A. ADAMS, AS SPECIAL ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF JANICE G. ADAMS, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS GAS COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 96 L 00072, The Honorable Sophia Hall, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cousins.

PUBLISHED

OPINION MODIFIED UPON DENIAL OF REHEARING

On December 7, 1995, Janice Adams died as a result of an explosion and fire at her home in Calumet City, Illinois. Christy Adams (plaintiff), as special administrator of the estate of Janice Adams, deceased, filed a wrongful death suit against Lucia Georgevich and Northern Illinois Gas Company (NI-Gas). On September 13, 2000, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of NI-Gas and deemed Georgevich's motion for summary judgment moot. On December 22, 2000, the trial court denied Adams' motion to reconsider. On January 18, 2001, the trial court also denied plaintiff's motion to take evidence depositions to preserve testimony. Adams presents the following issues for review on appeal: (1) whether the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of NI-Gas; and (2) whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying plaintiff's motion to perpetuate testimony.

BACKGROUND

Janice Adams was a 48-year-old mother of two when she died on December 7, 1995, as a result of a natural gas explosion and fire at her home. Christy Adams, as special administrator of the estate of Janice Adams, deceased, originally filed a wrongful death action against the homeowner, Lucia Georgevich, and later added NI-Gas.

Assistant chief of the Calumet City fire department Dan A. Smits stated in his pretrial deposition that he believed that the fire originated at the home as a result of an explosion involving natural gas. He further opined that the location of the gas flow was the "Cobra" gas connector.

Cobra is a brand-name corrugated metal connector that was produced between 1955 and 1965 by a Chicago-based manufacturer that is no longer in business. It is undisputed that, in its original state, natural gas is odorless. By law, NI-Gas is required to supply odorized gas to its customers as a detection method.

Wayne Genck, a consultant on matters involving natural gas connectors, testified at deposition that the sulfur added to natural gas and phosphorous metal in flexible connectors have a reaction that produces a "corrosion product."

Plaintiff's expert, accident investigator Charles Lamar, testified that the source of the natural gas leak at the Adams' home was the failure of the flexible connector that connected the back of the range to the house piping, called the Cobra. He further testified that there was no failure in the NI-Gas facilities or the gas meter that led to the explosion. Lamar noted that phosphorus brazing was banned in 1968, and NI-Gas knew for decades about the failure of the "brazed joints," but did not take sufficient action to stop the use of those joints and did not warn the public about them.

Norman Breyer, Ph.D., testified that there was a good deal of information circulated to the gas distributors starting in 1968 regarding the inherent weakness of the Cobra tubing connection and the danger of using brazing compounds that contained phosphorus because it caused the joints to become brittle. He further stated that "we know that there are sulphur compounds in the gas put in either as odorants or as trace elements for the gas that's being transmitted over the piping system." Dr. Breyer opined that "[s]ulphur caused the failure of the phosphorous that is inherent in that alloy, the brazing alloy."

The decedent's ex-husband, Leonard Adams, testified in deposition that he had observed NI-Gas employees read the gas meter in the utility room of the home on occasion, but they did not examine anything in the house other than the meter. In late 1978 or 1980, after having a new clothes drier installed by Sears, a gas leak was detected. Janice Adams called NI-Gas. A NI-Gas employee came to the home and checked a gas pipe that ran along the wall between the meter and the clothes drier. He discovered that it was leaking and tightened the pipe.

On June 21, 2000, NI-Gas filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that it did not owe a legal duty to Janice Adams. Georgevich also filed a motion for summary judgment.

On September 13, 2000, NI-Gas' motion for summary judgment was granted and Georgevich's motion for summary judgment was deemed moot. Plaintiff filed a motion to reconsider the September 13, 2000, order. On December ...


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