Assessing PTSD Claims After Gas Explosions: A Legal Perspective

Encounters with gas explosions often lead individuals, whether physically injured or not, to claim they have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a terrifying event, either experienced or witnessed. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

However, not everyone who experiences a gas explosion will develop PTSD. Therefore, in legal cases involving propane distributors, a thorough examination of the PTSD claim and the qualifications of the expert supporting it is crucial for the defense.

A recent case in Washington state serves as a notable example. In this case, a retailer dispatched a service technician to respond to a customer’s call for service. During the technician’s work on a water heater, an incident occurred, resulting in a gas ignition that caused a fireball. The customer alleged that he hit his head and suffered injuries during this incident, which include severe headaches, vision disturbances, and PTSD.

Subsequently, the customer filed a lawsuit against the retailer in November 2019, asserting that the technician had not followed proper procedures. The retailer denied these allegations and sought information to substantiate the PTSD claim, but these requests were ignored.

As the legal process unfolded, deadlines for disclosing witnesses and expert testimony approached, and the plaintiff had yet to tell any witnesses by December 2020. The retailer then filed a motion for summary judgment in June 2021, asserting that the plaintiff lacked medical expert testimony to support his damages claims. The retailer argued that there was no connection between the alleged PTSD and the water heater incident.

In response, the plaintiff identified an expert witness who claimed a connection between the plaintiff’s alleged PTSD and the incident. However, the retailer argued that this newly disclosed opinion was untimely and that the expert lacked the qualifications to provide medical opinions.

In July 2021, the trial court granted the retailer’s summary judgment motion, dismissing the lawsuit and awarding costs. The court determined that the plaintiff’s expert was not qualified to opine on the causation of the alleged PTSD. In response, the plaintiff appealed.

The appellate court focused on the qualifications of the plaintiff’s expert witness, noting that while practical experience can qualify a witness as an expert, testimony can only be admitted if the issue lies within the witness’s expertise. In this case, the court found that the plaintiff’s expert, although holding a PhD in psychology and education, lacked the training and experience necessary to offer medical opinions on brain injuries or psychological conditions.

The court affirmed the lower court’s decision, emphasizing that the professional’s expertise was primarily in organizational psychology and management rather than clinical psychology or fields relevant to diagnosing, treating, or researching PTSD. Therefore, the expert’s testimony on the cause of PTSD and physical injuries was inadmissible.

This case underscores that, even if a plaintiff claims to have PTSD following a gas explosion, the responsibility rests with the plaintiff to present evidence linking the PTSD to the specific incident. Defendants should diligently examine the qualifications of opposing experts and challenge their expertise when appropriate.

In conclusion, this legal perspective highlights the importance of carefully evaluating PTSD claims in gas explosion cases and the qualifications of expert witnesses, serving as a valuable reminder for all parties involved in similar circumstances.

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