Family of woman hurt in laundry room gas vapor explosion can’t use IL enviro law to sue gas station owners

The Illinois Supreme Court says a woman who was severely injured in an explosion caused by gasoline vapors that had traveled through a sewer pipe to the laundry room of her condo building from a gas station more than a mile away can’t use an Illinois environmental protection law to sue the owners of the gas station for allegedly allowing one of their underground fuel tanks to leak.

On May 23, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled 6-0 that the Illinois Environmental Protection Act does not contain a so-called private right of action that would allow individuals to use it to lodge lawsuits against gas station operators for injuries allegedly caused by alleged leaky fuel storage tanks.

The case centered on claims brought by plaintiff Laura E. Rice against the owners and operators of a Speedway gas station in Willowbrook.

Rice served as estate representative for her mother Margaret L. Rice, formerly of Willowbrook.

According to court documents, Margaret Rice lived in a condominium about one mile away from the Willowbrook Speedway station.

In 2017, the Speedway station logged multiple alarms indicating an underground fuel storage tank at the station was leaking gasoline into the ground. From there, fuel eventually reached a sanitary sewer line. At that point, court documents said “gasoline and associated vapors” moved through the sewer line toward Margaret Rice’s condominium.

On Oct. 19, 2017, according to court documents, “an odor resembling nail polish remover” was detected in the lower level apartments at a building just east of the condo building in which Margaret Rice lived. The Illinois Emergency Management Agency was notified.

The next day, when Margaret Rice was doing laundry, a spark from the dryer in her building’s laundry room ignited gasoline vapors, which exploded. Margaret was thrown from the room and badly burned in the explosion, resulting in two weeks of hospitalization and seven weeks in rehabilitation.

According to court documents, her condo unit was also “significantly damaged” and could not return home for more than a year.

According to court documents, Willowbrook’s public works employees traced the source of the odors and vapors to the gas station and notified the fire department prior to the explosion.

Speedway LLC ultimately signed onto a consent order in December 2018 in an action lodged by the Illinois Attorney General’s office and the DuPage County State’s Attorney’s office. Under that decree, the company paid a civil penalty into the Environmental Protection Trust Fund and to take certain corrective actions.

Margaret also filed suit in 2018 in Cook County Circuit Court. Her lawsuit included multiple counts against the station’s operating company, Speedway LLC; the station’s manager; and the station’s owner, Marathon Petroleum Corporation.

The counts included negligence claims against the defendants for allowing the gasoline to escape. But its also included three counts under the IEPA law, asserting the defendants should pay for allegedly violating a provision in the law requiring them to maintain their underground tanks in compliance with the standards set in the state’s Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) Program.

The plaintiffs sought compensatory damages under their negligence claims, but also sought potentially far more costly punitive damages under their statutory claims under the IEPA law.

Margaret died while the case was pending, and her daughter, Susan, was substituted as plaintiff.

The defendants, however, sought to dismiss at least the counts under the IEPA law, arguing the law limited enforcement powers solely to state officials, and did not allow for lawsuits like this one.

Cook County Judge James M. Varga agreed, and that decision was backed by the Illinois First District Appellate Court in Chicago.

Rice then appealed, and the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to answer the legal question posed over the ability to sue under the state’s environmental protection law.

However, the high court agreed with the lower courts’ findings that the IEPA law does not grant individuals the power to bring lawsuits for personal injuries caused by leaks from underground fuel storage tanks.

The decision was authored by Justice Mary K. O’Brien, with concurrence from the five other justices who participated in the proceedings in the case. According to the decision, Justice Elizabeth Rochford did not participate in the proceedings. The Supreme Court’s decision did not indicate why Rochford, who had served on the Lake County Circuit Court before being elected to the state’s high court, took no part.

In the decision, O’Brien noted the LUST Program was established under the IEPA Act to protect the environment, not necessarily to prevent individual personal injuries.

While conceding lawmakers included no express right of private action in the IEPA law, Rice’s lawyers asserted the provisions establishing the LUST Program should be read in conjunction with other state laws to indicated the law should be interpreted to impose strict liability for personal injuries on gas station operators in violation of LUST, and thus to create an “implied right of private action” for those injured by leaking underground tanks.

But the justices said the law only imposes strict liability on station operators for all of the costs associated with removing leaky tanks and repairing the associated environmental damage.

Further, the justices noted that violators of the LUST provisions can face civil and criminal prosecution, as well, with any associated penalties to be paid to the state’s Environmental Protection Trust Fund.

In short, they said, third party lawsuits are not needed or allowed to attempt to enforce that law.

“A review of the LUST Program and its regulations indicate that the (IEPA) Act, and the LUST Program in particular, was intended to protect resources, not to protect third parties injured by leaking underground storage tanks or to provide them with a cause of action for those personal injuries,” O’Brien wrote for the court. “While plaintiff is a member of the general prublic, who would benefit from the protection of the environment and could be harmed by acts that harm the environment, plaintiff is not a member of the class that the legislature primarily intended to benefit.”

However, the justices said Rice would still be permitted to pursue common law negligence claims against the defendants, as the court called such action “a sufficient remedy” under the law for Margaret’s personal injuries suffered in the 2017 explosion.

“The availability, and threat, of the common-law remedy effectively implements the public policy behind the LUST Program provision of the Act. That remedy, combined with governmental enforcement provisions and the threat of common-law liability, make it unnecessary to imply a private right of action,” O’Brien wrote.

Rice was represented before the Illinois Supreme Court by attorneys John J. Budin, of the Budin Law Offices, of Chicago; Matthew M. Vasconcellos, of Vasconcellos Law Group, of Chicago; and Michael T. Reagan, of Ottawa.

Budin and Vasconcellos did not repond to a request for comment from The Cook County Record.

Defendants were represented by attorneys Thomas M. Crawford and Joseph P. Sullivan, of the firm of Litchfield Cavo, of Chicago.

This article was first published in Cook County Record.

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