A jury’s award of $14.9 million to the family of a man killed in a fiery explosion after he backed his vehicle into a gas well near Farmington, New Mexico has been upheld by the New Mexico Court of Appeals. The court rejected arguments by Energen Resources Corp. that the jury’s award was excessive and therefore unconstitutional. The Santa Fe jury determined after a trial in 2006 that the oil and gas company was negligent and its conduct reckless in the death of John Everett Stapleton. Stapleton, who was 19 years of age, died on July 21, 2002, in an area popular with young people and off-road enthusiasts when he backed his car into an unfenced, unprotected natural gas wellhead. The wellhead exploded, and he burned to death. His family was awarded $1.92 million in compensatory damages and $13 million in punitive damages.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court said Energen’s conduct was sufficiently reckless to support a substantial award of punitive damages. The court said Energen “knew that there was a hazard of someone colliding with the wellhead, knew that if that happened serious bodily harm or death could result, knew that the well site was in a highly-traveled area, knew that erecting a barricade or fence would prevent the hazard, and still chose not to barricade the well site.” From the time the company acquired the well—along with about 1,000 others in the San Juan Basin—in 1997 until the accident in 2002, it took no action to protect the wellheads, showing a reckless disregard for the safety of the public, the judges said. Punitive damages of $13 million “are appropriate to achieve the dual goals of punishment and deterrence in this case,” Judge Michael Vigil wrote in the opinion. The family of a second person killed in the accident, Cody Amezcua, 20, of Farmington, settled its lawsuit against Energen before trial for an undisclosed amount.
Source: Associated Press
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