Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A state appeals court has upheld a jury award of nearly $20 million for a man severely burned nearly five years ago in a natural gas explosion in San Gabriel, the plaintiff’s law firm announced.

Pengxuan “Dean” Diao had sued Southern California Gas Co. and the owners of the home where he was hurt.

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about a day and a half before finding in favor of 26-year-old in June of 2014. The jury awarded him a total of $19,876,818 and found that the Gas Co. was liable for about $18.1 million of that amount, said Diao’s lead attorney, Kevin Boyle.

The remainder was assessed against Richard Liu and Joanna Cheung, landlords of the Marshall Street home where the accident occurred, Boyle said.

The Gas Co. admitted liability before trial and the jury’s only task was to assess damages. The landlords and their tenant, Yong Sheng Li, were brought into the case through a cross-complaint filed by the utility.

The jury found no liability on the part of Li, who subleased his garage to Diao.

Rahul Ravipudi, one of Diao’s attorneys, said during closing arguments in the trial that his client suffered second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, as well as brain damage that will likely cause him to begin experiencing dementia when he’s about 50.

According to Diao’s court papers, he was 23 when a Gas Co. employee opened a natural gas valve that activated a gas line running to the converted garage where he was sleeping on Jan. 19, 2011. The room filled up with 300 cubic feet of natural gas and exploded in flames after Diao, who had awakened, unwittingly lit a cigarette.

“This is believed to be the largest personal injury verdict in history against SoCalGas, who made no settlement offer at any time during the case,” according to a statement from law firm Panish Shea and Boyle LLP.

According to the firm, the utility contended on appeal that the trial court improperly included evidence at trial of Diao’s brain injury and that the evidence did not sufficiently demonstrate the gas leak or subsequent explosion and fire had caused the injury. The gas company also argued that the damages were punitive, excessive and based on passion and prejudice.

The appeal was filed in the California Court of Appeal’s Second District, where Diao was represented by Boyle, Ravipudi and Robert Glassman of Panish Shea and Boyle LLP as well as Martin N. Buchanan.

The utility was represented on appeal by Paul J. Loh and Jason H. Wilson of Willenken Wilson Loh & Delgado as well as Julian W. Poon and Lauren M. Blas of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

A Gas Co. representative did not immediately respond a request for comment on Friday’s appeals court decision.

–City News Service

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