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Estate of Benefiel v. Wright Hardware Co., Inc.

Court of Appeals of Indiana

June 27, 2019

The Estate of Charles D. Benefiel, by and through its Co-Personal Representatives, Michael D. Benefiel and Andrea D. Kessner, and The Estate of Linda D. Benefiel, by and through its Co-Personal Representatives, Michael D. Benefiel and Andrea D. Kessner, Appellants-Plaintiffs,
v.
Wright Hardware Co., Inc., Appellee-Defendant.

          Appeal from the Clinton Circuit Court The Honorable Bradley K. Mohler, Judge Trial Court Cause No. 12C01-1601-CT-55

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS Anthony W. Patterson Michael L. Schultz Kent M. Frandsen Parr Richey Frandsen Patterson Kruse, LLP Indianapolis, Indiana

          James D. Moore Kathryn J. Cook Ryan, Moore, Cook, Triplett & Albertson, LLP Frankfort, Indiana

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLEE Minh C. Wai Kopka Pinkus Dolin, P.C. Crown Point, Indiana

          RILEY, JUDGE.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         [¶1] Appellants-Plaintiffs, The Estate of Charles D. Benefiel, by and through its Co-Personal Representatives, Michael D. Benefiel and Andrea D. Kessner, and the Estate of Linda D. Benefiel, by and through its Co-Personal Representatives Michael D. Benefiel and Andrea D. Kessner (collectively, the Estate), appeal the verdict in favor of Appellee-Defendant, Wright Hardware Co., Inc. (Wright Hardware), in a negligence case arising out of a propane gas explosion wherein Charles and Linda Benefiel were killed.

         [¶2] We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         ISSUES

         [¶3] The Estate raises three issues on appeal, which we consolidate and restate as: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in permitting a defense expert witness to read verbatim into evidence an opinion set forth in an email to the defense expert witness.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         [¶4] This appeal follows a defense verdict in a negligence case arising out of a propane gas explosion that killed Charles and Linda Benefiel in their rural Clinton County residence. The Benefiel home was built in 1983 and, at the time of the explosion, the residence used propane gas service for heat and to fuel other gas appliances in their home. Beginning in 2000, the Benefiels became customers of Wright Hardware when Wright Hardware installed a 500-gallon liquid propane gas tank at the residence.

         [¶5] On October 19, 2015, at 9:37 a.m., Wright Hardware employee Chuck Watkins received a call from the Benefiels, complaining they had no heat in the residence. William Taylor (Taylor) responded to the complaint and discovered the control board and gas valve were no longer functioning. He replaced both components. To complete the replacement, Taylor shut the gas off at the gas shut-off valve for the furnace, which terminated the gas service to the furnace only and left the gas on everywhere else in the house. He then disconnected the piping from the furnace. After reassembling the piping, Taylor used a manometer to test the flow pressure to the manifold to ensure the pressure was correct for the furnace. He tested the regulator on the new gas valve to check it was consistently producing the required pressure. In addition, he sniffed around the area and failed to detect any propane in the immediate vicinity. Finally, Taylor soap-tested the pipe fittings, but did not perform a leak test. Not finding any leaks, Taylor turned the gas on to cycle through the furnace a few times.

         [¶6] On October 21, 2015, Wright Hardware delivered propane gas to the Benefiels' residence and filled the tank to eighty percent capacity. Two days later, on October 23, 2015, an explosion occurred which was followed by a fire, creating a debris field of 150 to 200 feet away from the residence. The home was substantially destroyed along with the surrounding buildings. It is not disputed by the parties that the explosion was ...


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