Forsyth County Man Injured in Basement Explosion May Be Able to Sue

Jim Davis, a 38-year-old man from Gainesville, has been hospitalized with burns all over his body, including some third degree burns that will require skin grafts, following an explosion in his basement.

Davis was spraying a flammable primer as part of a painting project, when the fumes ignited. Officials believe the basement’s water heater may have been the source of ignition. The explosion was powerful enough to cause the garage door to bow outward and multiple walls to shift out of position. Once the fire department inspected the damage, the home was declared unsafe to enter.

There was no sustained fire, the rest of the residents were unharmed, and Davis is in stable condition.

Explosions in Poorly Ventilated Basements Are a Known Hazard

Unless designers and owners take thorough precautions, basements can easily provide the ideal conditions for flammable gas explosions.

Water heaters play a big role in this issue. By design, gas-powered water heaters keep an open flame, the pilot light, burning at all times. This means that any flammable gasses that build up in the surrounding area — usually a home’s basement — can ignite as soon as they strike the right balance with the oxygen in the air.

The second major factor is that basements are, by definition, partially or completely underground. Many of the flammable gases commonly found in homes are heavier than air, including the propane fumes that many water heaters run on. When a heavier-than-air gas leaks into a space, it collects in low pockets, such as basements, and can stay there indefinitely until it is deliberately cleared out, or, if flammable, until it finds a spark. This can happen even in basements with open windows, because once the gas has settled into the portion of the basement that is below ground level, it won’t naturally rise high enough to escape.

An explosion happened under similar circumstances in Brooklyn, NY in October of 2014. A man was making flavored tobacco in his basement, when the fumes of the acetone he was working with ignited, engulfing him in flames. He later died of his injuries. Investigators did not specifically identify the ignition source in that case but did note the basement’s poor ventilation as a cause.

Safer Water Heater Technology Has Existed for Some Time

Many newer gas-powered water heaters have a guard system separating the pilot light from the surrounding room, greatly reducing the risk of an ignition, even if the room becomes filled with flammable fumes. Electric water heaters are also less likely to cause explosions than old-fashioned gas heaters, although electric circuits can sometimes create sparks of their own.

Unfortunately, even though electric and guarded water heaters are capable of preventing countless tragedies, they’re not yet standard in all homes. Instead, homeowners are essentially encouraged to keep all flammable materials out of their basements and hope for the best.

Contractors, Manufacturers, and Architects Have a Duty Not to Endanger People

In spite of this known pattern of basement explosions, minimally ventilated basements are still common, and not only as a result of DIY upgrades and repairs. It’s become popular for even professional renovation companies to recommend cutting back on basement ventilation as a way of combatting humidity and maximizing energy efficiency.

While this practice is not explicitly illegal, the architects who design homes, the contractors who build and renovate them, and the manufacturers of appliances like water heaters all have a legal responsibility make sure the work they produce is safe for normal, everyday use. It seems likely that, in the case of Jim Davis’s basement and water heater, someone fell short of fulfilling that responsibility.

If you are Jim Davis of Gainesville, or if you have been injured or lost a loved one to a similar basement explosion, The Stoddard Firm can help.

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