The most gratifying results have been for clients who had suffered horrific injuries and were in despair after being told by their first lawyer that they had no case.
A highly respected San Jose personal injury law firm told David McNabb, age 37, who had suffered electrical burns to 70% of his body that he had “no case” and that all that he could expect would be a desultory recovery in his workers’ compensation case.
These lawyers were wrong. They violated the cardinal rule: there is no such thing as an accident, someone causes every major injury. It is the lawyer’s job to prove who and why. That’s what I did for David McNabb.
David suffered electrical burns to 70% of his body when 12,400 volts exploded in front of him. He was not expected to survive. David holds the record for the longest period of treatment in VMC’s award-winning burn unit. His painful burns and donor sites were subjected to daily saltwater baths and gauze scrubbing to generate new skin. It is a miracle that he survived. Here is David’s heart-breaking account of the events in his own words.
David had been hired by Fluor Corporation as an apprentice technician to perform routine maintenance on IBM San Jose’s high-voltage electrical equipment. He had no electrical training and was doing entry level cleaning of electrical switch gear. An IBM electrical engineer on the job site sent David to scavenge a replacement part from an electrical cabinet in a power station that was shut down “locked off” and tagged “out of service.” When David applied his wrench to what he thought was de-energized switch gear, 37,000,000 watts of energy exploded in his face, set his body on fire and he was instantly burned to a crisp.
David’s first lawyers filed against IBM in federal court. I dismissed that case and refiled in Superior Court, which allowed for robust jury selection and a verdict by nine of twelve jurors, as opposed to a unanimous jury in federal court.
David’s first lawyers totally failed to understand that the key to winning David’s case was that under no circumstances should anyone ever make direct contact with the PG&E grid, i.e., 12,400 volts and 3,000 amperes, or 37,000,000 watts of energy.
To appreciate this much electrical energy exploding in front of you, imagine opening a closet door in your home and finding Niagara Falls roaring inside.
Silicon Valley manufacturing operations often require electricians to work “hot” equipment to avoid shutting down fabrication lines. Major manufacturers, like IBM, have detailed regulations for working on energized electrical systems. When required, a highly detailed, step-by-step, procedural plan is first approved by electrical engineers. For example, first wrap all tools with electrical tape, secure gloves and shields, identify the bolts to be loosened, apply a specified torque wrench, turn 90 degrees counterclockwise, etc. The actual work is always performed by skilled electricians and directly supervised by an electrical engineer, using the plan as a check list. Think of a co-pilot calling out items on a check list as a pilot executes pre-flight operations. That is what IBM requires of its employees.
David, an apprentice technician of a subcontractor with no electrical training or experience, was told by an IBM electrical engineer to scavenge parts for use in another location. The IBM engineer assumed the gear was de-energized in a building that previously had been shut down and was out of use.
As it turned out the IBM engineer was correct that the switch gear in the cabinet that David opened was open, i.e., turned off. Unfortunately, the direct electrical feed from PG&E in the base of the cabinet carried 12,400 volts and it was fully energized. That is similar to turning off a wall switch to a ceiling light in your home. The light is out. The circuit is open, but the power feed to the switch is energized.
IBM owned and controlled the worksite and gave an order to an employee of a subcontractor that resulted in David’s injuries. If IBM had followed its own regulations David would not have been injured. This was a case of solid liability and no comparative fault. The only open question that resolved at a JAMS mediation was the final settlement amount.
How did I figure this out?
Forty years ago, I learned that only a handful of electrical engineers have experience with electrical utility systems and industrial grade high voltage. The danger of high voltage electricity, like atomized gasoline, is not appreciated by most people. I have represented more than 20 people killed or burned by high voltage electrical and gas fires. I have the highest level of respect for electricity and gasoline.
Second, 12,400 volts carrying 3,000 amperes is a big deal. Volts times amperes = watts, i.e., energy. Think Niagara Falls. You would not send an untrained person to pick up 100 pounds of Semtex or C-4. In short, with this much power you are dealing with a potential bomb that could blow up your house and turn it into toothpicks.
Third, I am a pilot. You never jump into an airplane and go. With souls at risk, weather here, en route and at destination is verified, pre-flight inspection of the aircraft is mandatory including objective verification of oil and fuel levels, and the pre-flight check list is followed before getting a tower release to taxi. When there is avoidable danger, checklists are mandatory.
Fourth, all major corporations have safety manuals and regulations to safeguard employees from injury, prevent loss time injuries and associated expenses and promote efficiency. The rules are written by safety engineers and communications specialists and are upgraded periodically. Audits and inspections by unions, OSHA, safety departments and insurers are commonplace. The larger the organization the more detailed the rulebook, e.g., U.S. Navy, Consolidated Rail, National Semiconductor, and General Motors to name just a few defendants I have sued. I was familiar with IBM’s detailed safety regulations for the handling of toxic chemicals around the world. I was confident IBM had detailed safety regulations for electrical work in its plants. It is the nature of the beast. Turned out I was right.
Fifth, when it comes to safety take nothing for granted. All guns are loaded until they are unloaded and dry fired. Only then are they safe. That rule applied here as well.
If the IBM engineer ordering David’s scavenger hunt had followed IBM regulations David would not have been burned. David tells his harrowing story in this video.
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Alexander Law Group, LLP attorneys are available to answer questions and share our knowledge of the law and the results of our research and experience. Our goal as personal injury lawyers is to make a difference for our clients. Every day we deal with a range of health and safety issues that most people do not encounter until after an injury occurs. As safety lawyers we are committed to providing our clients and the public with information for safer and healthier living. Call 888-777-1776 or contact us online to schedule a consultation to see how we can help you.