Delaware State News
Thursday, November 6, 2003
$3.1M awarded in '99 blast
Sears ruled negligent in Royal Grant explosion
By Tom Eldred
Delaware State News
Dover - A Kent County Superior Court jury awarded $3.1 million in damages Monday to the widow and three daughters of a Royal Grant man who was killed in a 1999 house explosion.
The blast, caused when a leak in a connecting hose to a propane gas range ignited, killed Terry L. Midcap, 52, of 69 Royal Grant Way, in the early morning hours of April 8, 1999.
The explosion leveled the Midcap home and caused six neighboring residences to be condemned. In total, 40 homes were damaged.
Mr. Midcap was alone in the house at the time. There were no other injuries.
Dover Attorney I. Barry Guerke represented Mr. Midcap's widow, Maria Midcap, and the couple's three adult daughters - Natalia, Sharon and Carla - in the wrongful death lawsuit.
Defendants in the case were Sears Roebuck & Co. and Southern States Milford Co-op Inc.
Mr. Guerke said the jury verdict was based on a final report from the state fire marshal's office determining that a defective connection had been made to a propane stove Mr. Midcap had moved the afternoon before the explosion.
He said Sears, which installed the connection from a propane tank to the stove, was found entirely negligent by the jury.
Southern States, as the propane supplier, was found not liable, and the jury found no comparative negligence on the part of Mr. Midcap, Mr. Guerke said.
In addition to the $3.1 million award to the Midcap family. Mr. Guerke said a co-plaintiff, Allstate Insurance Co., received a $462,000 subrogation award for insurance paid out under the Midcap's home owner's policy.
"It was determined Mr. Midcap lifted the stove 1½ to 2 inches, which caused the connection to break." Mr. Guerke said "It's foreseeable a stove is going to be moved at some point.
"That kind of leak would not have occurred with the right connection. Sears used a compression fitting when they hooked up the stove. They should have used a flex connector. Sears was held responsible for installing the wrong connector."
Investigators at the time concluded that Mr. Midcap had moved the gas range on the afternoon of April 7 while repairing a parquet floor in the home's kitchen, causing the gas leak.
Carla Midcap, then 16, told authorities she had smelled gas in the home before going to spend the night with a friend.
Mr. Midcap was in the residence when the 100-pound propane tank exploded at 2:47 a.m. The blast was caused when a spark from a nearby hot water heater or furnace ignited the leaking propane gas. Mr. Guerke said.
He said a forensic pathologist appearing on behalf of the Midcap family in the course of the three-week trial testified that Mr. Midcap had lived "15 to 30 seconds" after the explosion.
Mr. Midcap was retired from the Air Force and had worked for the state Department of Correction.
"The family had come through Dover in the late 1980s when Mr. Midcap was in the Air Force," Mr. Guerke said. "They had a two-or-three-day layover so they rented a car to look around.
"They were living in California but they liked Dover so much they decided to settle here when he retired."
Mr. Guerke said Mrs. Midcap moved back to her native Spain and the daughters also left the area.
"This was a very good verdict for Kent County," Mr. Guerke said.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the jury. They were very patient and attentive during a complicated trial that had a lot of distractions."
He said jurors deliberated 3½ to 4 hours before returning the verdict. The trial was conducted in front of Kent County Superior Court Judge William L. Witham Jr.
Senior writer Tom Eldred
can be reached at 741-8212