1720 23rd Avenue | Boyce Holleman Blvd. | Gulfport, MS 39501

Claims Settled in Gas Explosion Driver, Tanker Company Liable; Judge Awards $28.2M Monday

(Re-printed with permission from the SUN HERALD)

Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Section: LOCAL-FRONT

Page: A1

BY BRAD BRANAN / THE SUN HERALD

Illustration: Photo

 

Infobox: Explosion payments

 

Caption: PHOTO BY: VERNON MATTHEWS/THE SUN HERALD

 

In August 1998, Inspector Robert Burris takes measurements while Captain Don

Britt points to a Denny's Restaurant sign damaged by an explosion and fire that killed

five people. A fuel truck had been making a delivery to the Texaco Fast Lane in

Biloxi when gas leaked from it, ran down the highway and engulfed three vehicles in

flames. The final legal claims were resolved Monday, when a judge awarded $28.2

million to the families of three people killed in the accident

 

Info Box: Explosion payments

 

The remaining legal claims in the 1998 Texaco Fast Lane explosion were settled

when Circuit Court Judge Jerry Terry awarded $28.2 million to the families of three

people who were killed because of the fire. A list of the latest awards:

 

**Relatives of Linda and Te'Anna Nix of Gulfport, a mother and daughter killed

because of the explosion, received $18.8 million. Linda Nix was 43; her daughter was

20.

 

**Relatives of William Richard Brown, who also died, received $9.4 million. Brown

was 18.

 

Previous settlements in the case:

 

**The owner of Fast Lane settled with five families who lost relatives in the fire, and

a young man maimed in the fire, for more than $10 million.

 

**A tanker company agreed to pay the lone survivor, 27-year-old James Forbes,

more than $7 million.

 

**The tanker company agreed to pay the daughters of a Wisner, La., couple more

than $6.5 million. Margaret Wilson, 56, was killed in the fire. William Wilson, 58, died

in the burn unit of a Mobile hospital.

 

 

GULFPORT --- When he was hired as a tanker-truck driver, Bruce Jordan had a

history of truck-driving accidents. His trainer at the tanker company told supervisors

that Jordan had attention problems and shouldn't deliver gas.

 

Premium Tank Lines put Jordan on the road anyway and worked him relentlessly.

When Jordan spilled the gasoline that would cause a fatal explosion on U.S. 90 two

years ago, he had worked 71 days in a row. After hearing about a pattern of

problems that led to the explosion, Circuit Court Judge Jerry Terry ruled Monday that

Premium and Jordan were liable for the maiming of a young man and the deaths of

five people killed in the fire at Texaco Fast Lane in Biloxi. He awarded $28.2 million

to the families of three people killed by the fire.

 

Premium previously settled for more than $13.5 million the three other legal claims

filed in the explosion. The owner of the gas station, R.R. Morrison & Sons, has

settled with all of the families for more than $10 million.

 

Premium admits it made numerous mistakes that led to the explosion, and previously

had agreed to the damages awarded Monday. But the Jackson-based company

couldn't settle because its insurer, American National, refused to pay more money

after settling the previous claims. American National says Premium's policy doesn't

cover the explosion.

 

Attorneys for Premium and the plaintiffs estimated that a jury would have awarded

more than $50 million. But Tim Holleman, who represents the families who received

awards Monday, said they didn't want the trauma of a trial. He added that money

wasn't their primary concern.

 

"We hope that one thing that comes out of this judgment is that this never happens

again,'' said Holleman.

 

"Premium has improved its safety practices to make sure this doesn't happen again,''

said Ron Peresich, Premium's attorney.

 

But Holleman says tanker companies have failed to get the message before. He

points to a case in which a 14-year-old Mississippi girl was killed when a tanker

driver pumped too much gas into a tank. The state Supreme Court wrote of the case,

"Those who handle such dangerous agencies should be made to know the standard of

care which is required of them.''

 

The spill happened in 1952. Nearly 50 years later, Premium allowed a driver to

deliver gas in a way that invited tragedy. The company was aware of previous spills

by Jordan and another driver, including one at the Biloxi station two years before the

explosion. But Premium failed to take the steps that might have prevented the

explosion.

 

Jordan has attention problems

 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, Premium and Jordan agree on the facts that led to the

explosion. The following account is based on those facts.

 

Jordan, a 42-year-old Gulfport resident, never should have been hired. He was

suspended from driving duties at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport

after a series of accidents. He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and

began taking a prescription drug for it.

 

Not long after his discharge in 1997, Jordan took a job with a trucking company. He

was fired in less than three weeks because he slowed down abruptly on an interstate

during a training drive. He was confused about which direction to turn at a fork in the

road.

 

Jordan didn't list that job on his Premium application. He listed his Navy experience,

but Premium never obtained his military driving record. ADD, which made him

ineligible to deliver gas under federal regulations, was included in his record.

 

Premium trained him for four days. His trainer told supervisors, "We don't need to

hire this guy. He's not getting it.'' The trainer was told to work with Jordan for

another day.

 

Jordan got one day off and then was put on the road. During his nearly four-month

stint with Premium, Jordan got three days off. He worked up to 12 hours a day and

took caffeine and herb pills to stay awake.

 

Federal regulations limit tanker drivers to 70 hours of work in an eight-day period.

Jordan was told by a supervisor not to record all of his hours in his driving log.

 

He'd worked for 71 days in a row when he filled the tank at the Texaco Fast Lane in

August 1998. He went to sleep at home but got a call to make another delivery. He

says he was told to refill the Fast Lane station; a Premium dispatcher says he was

supposed to go to a Long Beach station.

 

But Jordan had second thoughts when he got to the Biloxi station around midnight. "I

may be a little bit groggy and tired at times,'' he later told an investigator. "Sometimes

I might not get the right (station) number. I don't know. Maybe I'm not hearing. I

don't know. I'm just trying to be honest with you.''

 

The Biloxi station didn't need gas. A computer printout that Jordan received at the

station showed that the 12,000-gallon tank already was three-fourths full when he

tried to pump in another 6,000 gallons. Jordan said he didn't know how to read the

printout.

 

An estimated 750 gallons spilled. Jordan, who was doing paperwork, was told about

the spill. Instead of trying to contain the gas and direct traffic away from it, he went

into his truck to try to figure out how much gas had spilled.

 

When the gas ignited, Jordan ran from the station, leaving a gas station employee and

patrons of a nearby restaurant to try to save the burning people.

 

Cap could have prevented spill

 

Jordan's ultimate mistake was simple. He had to take a cap off the tank so he could

measure the gas depth. His stick was too short, so he didn't get an accurate measure.

But if he had followed proper procedure and replaced the safety cap before filling the

tank, the gas couldn't have overflowed.

 

Jordan said he just filled the tank like he was taught, although Premium denies that.

 

Still, Jordan and another Premium driver had made the same mistake before, and

spills had resulted. A driver spilled an estimated 100 gallons at the same Texaco Fast

Lane in July 1996.

 

Premium's safety director was concerned about negative publicity over the spill: "This

spill turned out to be a big one with television coverage and other city departments

getting involved,'' Mike Todd wrote the driver.

 

But Jordan said no one told him about how to prevent such spills when he took the

job two years later. Before the Fast Lane explosion, he spilled about 25 gallons of gas

at a Bay St. Louis gas station. He didn't learn from that accident about putting the

cap on before filling.

 

Plaintiff's attorney Holleman says Premium probably had drivers leave the caps off

because tanks can be filled more quickly that way. Premium denies this.

 

"I feel some sympathy for Jordan. He shouldn't have been driving. He didn't receive

training,'' Holleman said. "What Premium did was criminal, but you can't file criminal

charges against a company in Mississippi.''