An attorney for the maker of a cylinder that exploded while being filled with nitrous oxide in 2012 near USC, killing one man and injuring another, told a jury Wednesday that his client was not negligent and he called the decedent a “risk-taker.”
Attorney Fred Blum told the panel tasked with deciding the lawsuit brought by relatives of 31-year-old Roberto J. Lasarte that management at Catalina Cylinders had adequate warnings on the tanks and that the plaintiffs’ attorneys were unrealistic in alleging they were insufficient.
Lasarte’s lawyers maintain Catalina and its president, Richard Hill, knew of the dangers of mixing hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide with nitrous oxide, yet the warning labels on the cylinders were not specific enough to warn consumers. Blum disputed that argument.
“Do you have to warn not to inhale?,” Blum asked. “The plaintiffs would say, `Yes, you do.”’
Blum also defended Hill, saying he had been vilified by the Lasarte lawyers.
“He’s not the monster the plaintiffs are portraying him as,” Blum said. “If he had no interest in safety, there would have been no warnings.”
Blum called Lasarte a “risk-taker” who was introduced to nitrous oxide through street racing.
“He’s not the kind of person who put safety first,” Blum said.
During his closing argument Tuesday, Lasarte attorney Daniel Balaban showed jurors a video that he said demonstrated how oil seeped into one in 20 of the cylinders Catalina made, increasing the chance of an explosion during normal use.
“There’s nothing they can do to get away from it,” Balaban said of the video.
The explosion happened about 6:30 p.m. June 13, 2012, in a small building housing Lasarte’s employer, NOSWerks, behind Bembis Meat Market near Grand Avenue and Adams Boulevard. Lasarte was transferring nitrous oxide from a large cylinder tank to an aluminum tank that exploded, Balaban said.
The official cause of Lasarte’s death was multiple traumatic injuries, Ed Winter, the Los Angeles County coroner’s assistant chief of investigations, said at the time.
Nitrous oxide is two parts nitrogen and one part oxygen and is often referred to as “nos.” The state of California includes it on its list of hazardous substances.
Nitrous oxide is used in the gas used to sedate dental patients and in the racing industry to make cars go faster.
Among the plaintiffs in the Los Angeles Superior Court suit are Lasarte’s father, Roberto M. Lasarte, and his brother, Juan Lasarte, who was working with his sibling and was four to five feet away when the cylinder exploded. Both men and other family members have attended the entire trial.
Juan Lasarte will never be the same physically because of foot, back and head injuries, Balaban said.
“He has life-altering injuries from head to toe,” Balaban said.
But Blum said Juan Lasarte’s health has improved since late 2015.
Balaban has asked for a multimillion-dollar award, saying that although it would not bring back Roberto J. Lasarte, it would make a difference to his family.
“That way the weight of this tragedy does not fall on their shoulders alone,” Balaban said.