$1.3 million Settles Heater Fire Case

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

By Craig Wolf
Poughkeepsie Journal
September 10, 1998

NEWBURGH - A fatal fire that started in a kerosene heater mistakenly filled with gasoline has resulted in a $1.3 million lawsuit settlement to be paid by insurers for Mid-Valley Oil Co. to a Middletown family.

Nancy Villafane will receive $1.1 million and her son, Jonathan, who was four during the 1992 fire, will receive $200,000, said a spokesman for the family's attorney.

Another son, Edwin, who was five, died in the fire at the family's Castle High Trailer Park home.

Elliot S. Tetenbaum, the attorney who represented the Villafanes, said Edwin Villafane thought he was buying kerosene when he filled his container at an Xtra Mart station owned by Mid Valley Oil Co. The suit claimed the service station should have separated the pumps and more clearly labeled them.

The duplex pump had kerosene on one side at $1.349, labeled "kerosene" and gasoline on the other at $1.279, with no specific gas label.

The company is owned by Warren Equities, whose spokesman Jeff Walker, said it had an office in Providence, R.I. "There was no admission of liability," he said. "It never went to trial. It's a settlement that both parties are satisfied with."

"Risk of catastrophe effects"
Tetenbaum, a partner in the Newburgh firm of Larkin, Ingrassia & Tepermayster, LLP, said, "You're dealing with something that has enormous consequences. If you buy gasoline instead of kerosene, you can have an explosion and catastrophic effects to peoples' lives."

Tetenbaum said the defendants claimed the fuel involved was really kerosene and that the fire stemmed from placement of the heater too close to bedding. Defendants pointed out that the heater apparently worked properly for more than two hours before the fire.

State Police investigators said testing showed the fuel was actually gasoline, and Tetenbaum hired experts who found the same. They also said the fire occurred inside the heater itself. Another expert testified that the side-by-side pump layout would be confusing.

"I had an investigator check all around Orange County, and in other service stations, it was always very separate," Tetenbaum said.

Consumers should be cautious using kerosene, said John Matask, Assistant Director of Consumer Affairs in Dutchess County. Even distributors get confused on fuel. "One gas station... did get a gas mixture in one of their kerosene storage tanks. A customer purchased some and happened to notice that the odor was not normal kerosene," Matask said.

Kerosene heaters are anathema to the fire services. "I do not recommend them at all," said Dewitt Sagendorph, emergency response coordinator for Dutchess County. There are "too many safety problems" including consumption of oxygen, emission of dangerous carbon monoxide, burns from touching and danger from spilling fuel.

Building codes require that fueled home heaters be vented to the outside by Divest he said.

* Reprinted with permission of The Poughkeepsie Journal

Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.