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According to a recent NBC News investigation, the ubiquitous red plastic portable gasoline container cans sold throughout the U.S. are susceptible to a real explosion hazard many Americans may not know about.Gas Can Explosions“It was ‘boom.’  That was it,” said William Melvin, who suffered severe burns on one-third of his body when a gas can he was using allegedly exploded. “It was a miracle that I was still alive.”

Millions of Gas Cans in Use

According to industry experts, American consumers buy approximately 20 million gas cans each year, and there are more than 100 million plastic gas cans currently in circulation in the U.S.

Gas Can Explosion Risks

Laboratory tests indicate that gas vapor mixtures can explode inside those cans and cause significant injury. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has analyzed incident and injury databases and counted at least 11 reported deaths and 1,200 emergency room visits involving gas can explosions during the pouring of gasoline since 1998.

The tests show that a flashback explosion can occur inside a plastic gas can, when gas vapor escaping the can contacts a source of ignition such as a flame or a spark.  The vapor outside the container can ignite and “flash back” inside the can. If it does, and if the gas/air vapor mixture inside the can is a certain concentration, that mixture can ignite and cause an explosion of flame.

Gas Can Flashback Lawsuits

Plaintiffs have filed at least 80 lawsuits the past 20 years, individuals injured in gas can explosions.  They have argued that portable plastic gas cans are “dangerous” and “unsafe” because they are “susceptible” to flashback explosions. Most of the lawsuits have named as defendants Blitz USA, until recently the largest manufacturer of plastic gas cans, and Wal-Mart, the largest seller.

Robert Jacoby, now 27, sued after a Blitz can he said he bought at Walmart allegedly exploded in his hand in 2010 while he was reaching down to put it on the ground in his front yard.

“It was just a big gas bomb right in my face,” Jacoby told NBC News.  “It blew up, covered my whole body just head to toe.”

Jacoby said he had poured gasoline from the can onto a brush pile he planned to ignite, but had walked the can 20 feet from the pile when it exploded. He said he had not yet lit a match or any other fire, but claimed a spark from static electricity created by the friction between the plastic can and his denim jeans was the source of ignition.

A fire investigator hired by Jacoby’s attorney examined Jacoby’s property and says he found no evidence inconsistent with Jacoby’s claim, and no evidence that Jacoby had lit the brush pile or that the brush pile had burned.

Jacoby suffered severe burns over 75 percent of his body.  He spent four months in a hospital burn unit, and had multiple surgeries and skin grafts, incurring $1.5 million in medical bills. Scar tissue covers most of his torso and arms.

Gas Can Industry “Gas Cans are very safe”

The plastic gas can industry disagrees. “Today’s gas cans are very safe,” said William Moschella, an attorney for the Portable Fuel Container Manufacturers Association, a trade group of plastic gas can manufacturers.

Some fire experts say that while pouring gas on a fire may cause the fire to flare up and burn someone, it’s the explosion involving the gas can itself that covers the victim in flames and causes catastrophic injuries.

Gas Cans Alleged ‘Defect’: No Flame Arresters

The lawsuits allege that the gas cans are “susceptible” to such internal combustion explosions and are therefore “dangerous,” “unsafe” and “defective” for a specific reason: because their design does not include a flame arrester, a part the lawsuits allege could prevent flashback explosions.

Flame arresters — pieces of mesh or disks with holes that are intended to disrupt flame — are in use in metal “safety” gas cans, in fuel tanks, and in storage containers of other flammable liquids such as charcoal lighter fluid and rum.

Blitz USA Bankruptcy

The suits generally make the claim that the cans were susceptible to “flashback” explosions caused when gasoline vapors outside the cans ignited and followed the vapor trail back into the container. The lawyers argue that the company should have installed “flame arrester” shields at the mouth of the containers to prevent explosions.

Blitz has been sued 62 times since 1994, according to the company and only two cases have made it to court; the others were settled or dismissed, or were unresolved at the time of the bankruptcy. The company says defending the cases drove it into bankruptcy.

In the one case Blitz lost, in 2010, a Utah jury awarded more than $4 million to the father of a 2-year-old girl killed when a Blitz can exploded after the father, David Calder, tried to start a fire in a wood-burning stove in his trailer home by pouring gasoline on the flame.

Blitz won the other case that went to trial, in 2008, involving a Texas man named Brody Green, who died in an explosion when he poured gasoline from a can onto a fire.

In 2012, a Texas court forced the company to pay Mr. Green’s mother $250,000 for failing to provide all the documents it had on flame arresters before the trial. The court also said its order must be provided to every other plaintiff who sued Blitz over the last two years.

Among the documents Blitz had neglected to disclose was a 2005 internal memo from Rocky Flick, the company’s chief executive, titled “My Wish List” and “Expectations for Gas Cans.” In it, Mr. Flick appears to request that in two years the company “develop and introduce device to eliminate flashback from a flame source.”

United States District Judge T. John Ward ruled that, had the memo been disclosed in the original case, it “would have hurt, if not potentially eliminated, Blitz’s defense that they did not add a flame arrester because it would not have been useful.”

Ten years ago, the company would face one or two lawsuits a year. The number grew to six or seven a year, and finally to 25 or so last year when Blitz filed for bankruptcy.

The Blitz factory, in Miami, Okla., may be reopening soon. Scepter, a Canadian plastics manufacturer, bought the operation for $9.5 million. The company, which also does not use a flame arrester, settled a gas can lawsuit against it in the United States last year.

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