Indiana Food Truck Explosion “Not Foreseeable,” Appellate Court Rules, Despite Similar Occurrences Elsewhere

When our Indiana personal injury lawyers first read the headline referencing a “food truck” and an “explosion,” we assumed the latter was a figure of speech intended to punch up a story on the proliferation of the increasingly popular mobile cuisine, which took off around 2007 amid the economic recession. The industry grew 9 percent annually between 2010 and 2015. Unfortunately, the headline was referring to an actual explosion involving a food truck in June 2015 as it was stationed in the parking lot of an auto salvage yard in Indianapolis, where customers – including plaintiff – were being served.

The case history here is extensive, but the crux of the Indiana Court of Appeals’ decision in the defendants’ favor was that plaintiffs failed to prove defendant property owner could have reasonably foreseen the possibility of a food truck blowing up on-site. At first glance, that seems a reasonable position. However, it turns out there have been a number of serious – and even deadly – food truck explosions across the U.S. in recent years.

In June 2014 – a year almost to the day of the Indiana food truck explosion – a propane tank on a food truck in Philadelphia exploded while customers were being served. Local news reports indicated that the force of the blast sent the metal tank 50 feet into a nearby backyard and flames shooting up 200 feet into the air. As a result of that incident, a 42-year-old woman and her 17-year-old daughter who were inside the truck, were killed after suffering major burns across much of their bodies. Three bystanders – including a little girl – also sustained serious burns and others were hit by debris. An investigation later revealed the 70-year-old propane tank was improperly filled, resulting in a gas leak and ultimately the explosion.

The case resulted in $160 million pre-trial settlement (believed to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest), as well as new safety standards for checking and maintaining propane tanks.

Then just last month in Portland, Oregon, a food truck explosion early on a Sunday morning destroyed not only the truck but damaged three nearby buildings. No one was in or around the truck at the time, so thankfully no one was hurt. The cause is still under investigation, but officials suspect a malfunctioning gas line.

In the case recently before the Indiana Court of Appeals, the auto salvage business where the explosion occurred occasionally has flammable materials on site. This includes items left in a vehicle that was repossessed without warning or brought in after a crash, when previous owners didn’t have time to remove all personal items. The food truck operator had a “handshake deal” first established with the previous owner of the salvage yard to sell tacos from his truck on the property, paying $25-a-day to the salvage yard. The salvage yard owners never asked whether the taco truck operator was licensed to sell food or whether safety procedures were in place for use of the propane tank necessary to operate the food truck. Managers said they were not aware of any previous incidents involving fires, explosions or other dangerous conditions created by a food truck on its premises at any time prior to this incident.

Court records indicate the food truck suddenly exploded and caught fire, which fire officials and the health department later determined was caused by ignition of gas fumes from an open cooking flame. An employee of the food truck company was deemed responsible for the explosion when he opened a can of gasoline too close to the grill when trying to refill a generator.

Plaintiff, a customer who was injured in the explosion, sued the auto salvage yard and the taco truck company. Against the food truck owner, he alleged negligence in handling of combustible fuels, selling food without a license, failing to train workers and failing to inspect its truck and equipment. The auto salvage yard, he alleged, was liable for failing to monitor or inspect the truck company’s vehicle or equipment, failing to ensure the vendor had a license and failing to study proper food truck safety procedures. He also alleged the salvage yard was vicariously liable for the taco truck’s negligence because the two were operating as a joint venture. Our Gary¬†personal injury attorneys¬†note such liability is often assigned to employers.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the auto salvage yard. Plaintiff argued on appeal that because of the nature of the salvage yard’s business, a gas explosion on site was foreseeable, and that if the company had taken proper precautions to inspect the food truck, the explosion would not have happened.

The majority in the Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that while it was the stove in the truck that caught fire, the injuries that occurred were the result of the food truck operator’s negligence. Thus, the court held the explosion was not foreseeable and the salvage yard not liable.

Indiana Injury Attorney Burton A. Padove handles personal injury claims throughout northern Indiana, including Highland, Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

German A. Linares v. El Tacarajo and U-Pull-And-Pay, LLC d/b/a Pic A Part, Feb. 8, 2019, Indiana Court of Appeals

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