A 2012 lightning incident, the resulting house fire and tragic death of a 31-year-old Texan, combined with the resulting civil litigation, seem poised to change how at least one community regulates the flexible pipes that funnel natural gas into American homes.
And, at least by implication, offer questions about how everyone else might raise the standard of those pipes.
Lubbock, Texas - probably best known as Buddy Holly's hometown and certainly not known as a hotbed of government regulation - is illustrating the role that civil cases can play in building codes. I've noted before that, even if you balk at the concept that plaintiffs' attorneys can become "the common people's attorneys general," you still have to admit that some of the research and advocacy that goes into lawsuits can help advance public safety.
One could also argue that's what's happening in Lubbock, where Brennen Teel's 2012 death was blamed on lightning and the failure of what's called "yellow" Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST). Brennen Teel's parents, Ken and Becky Teel, later formed the Brennen Chase Teel Foundation for Gas Line Safety.... to educate the public about lightning and CSST. Having commissioned testing of the tubing, they began to make the results of the independent laboratory tests available to all who visit the foundation's website at BTFgaslinesafety.org. CSST is used in millions of American homes but can be compromised with lightning.
The flexible pipe CSST was developed in Japan and other earthquake-prone areas because it doesn't break during quakes, like hard-metal pipe might. It's also popular because of cost and ease of installation. Amid the official investigation, civil lawsuit and research the city of Lubbock declared a moratorium on CSST.
That moratorium is impactful, in part because of how national building codes evolve. There is no one national uniform "code," instead agencies and industries adopt "standards" and those standards get incorporated into a patchwork of local codes. Your building codes may be the latest and greatest, or perhaps a bit behind the times. If people take notice of Lubbock, the trend can spread as it appears Lubbock has found a solution.
Steve O'Neil, Lubbock's chief building official for more than a quarter-century, explains that a special fuel gas committee was formed to look into their situation and thinks it has such a solution - it is recommending that Lubbock become the first U.S. community to adopt the highest standard for CSST pipe going forward. The next step, he says, will be taking the committee recommendation to the city's Code Board on Aug 26, then likely to the city council to be held in September or October, depending on how quickly lawyers can draw up the rules.
O'Neil explains that CSST comes in three broad categories known first by color: "yellow," which was the go-to product for decades, and two kinds of more recent "black" CSST. He says a few brands control about 80-plus percent of the CSST market, so for shorthand he notes that the FlashShield brand is one type meeting a LC1027 standard while another common brand, CounterStrike, represents what's known as the LC1024 standard. Generally, CSST made to the LC1027 standard incorporates a protective metal shield similar to those used on aircraft.
Attorneys for the Teel family say they believe pipes made to the lesser standards may have been involved in hundreds of fires over the years. Lubbock, says O'Neil, is moving toward only allowing the LC1027 standard, in effect outlawing products that are routinely used daily in communities across the country. He says the reason is "... there's just a huge difference" in safety performance, especially concerning lightning strikes.
Since the cost difference is expected to be pennies per foot, he adds, homeowners will benefit greatly without spending much more money. He says his local building community embraces anything that provides "a level playing field."
"The public doesn't know," said O'Neil of the CSST issue. "The simple fact of the matter is that it [lightning-strike house fires] is happening." He speculated that other communities no doubt know about the problem but have not yet acted.
The Lubbock situation has earned national attention in the fire-code world in part because there are literally hundreds of lawsuits around the country over CSST failure claims. The research and possible regulation is bound to become routinely cited in those situations, including the research sparked by civil litigation.
In reporting on Lubbock, NBC News noted that "lightning ignites 22,600 fires a year in the U.S" and "that figure includes approximately 4,290 home fires, which cause a majority of the associated losses. According to the Insurance Information Institute, analyzing homeowner insurance data, there are on average about 200,000 insurer paid lightning claims per year. Thousands of house fires are attributed to "god-like" event lightning strikes while the science to understand the impact and power of lightning evolves.
The NBC report quoted Mitch Guthrie, an engineer and member of the National Fire Protection Associaton, or NFPA, Lightning Protection Committee who has not testified in the many lawsuits either for or against manufacturers, saying "I just want to know the solution to the [lightning] problem, because the problem is out there."
Guthrie actually praises the Teel Foundation as "... providing input and providing information" that might not come from other sources. Marquette Wolf, a Teel attorney and a founder of the Foundation, said they became potential advocates of the LC1027 standard because of extensive testing.
The litigation and politics have clearly pushed the CSST discussion. According to Lubbock officials and others who have reviewed testing, metal shielded pipes made to the LC1027 standard have performed safely in hundreds of relevant tests, where non-shielded products have failed. Meanwhile, the Lubbock building official says there has been local support of the new CSST recommendation.
O'Neil says that his community is united to make the change to LC1027-rated CSST. Meanwhile Guthrie, with 35 years of experience and having seen the recent testing, says the LC1027 standard would be the only CSST pipe he would allow in his home.
Apparently, thanks in no small part to attention gained via civil litigation, it may also be the only CSST pipe Lubbock, Texas, allows in its homes.
Sara Corcoran Warner is publisher of the National Courts Monitor website, "Your Daily Ration of Civil Justice Rationing," and a frequent commentator on national legal policy and civil courts issues. Courts Monitor producers contributed to this post.