A Dallas County jury ruled Tuesday in favor of the defendants in a wrongful death suit stemming from the 2019 electrocution of a worker at a West Texas midstream energy plant.
On their second day of deliberation, jurors in the court of state District Judge Monica McCoy Purdy awarded damages of $3.94 million to the family of electrician Gabriel Vela, who was killed May 4, 2019, while working in the motor control center of the Lobo III midstream gas facility in Luling County, operated by EnLink Midstream of Dallas.
However, by also finding Vela 51 percent responsible for the accident, the jury eliminated any possibility of recovery of damages by Vela’s common-law spouse, Maria de los Angeles Rodriguez, or Vela’s parents, who were, respectively, the plaintiff and intervenors on the plaintiff’s side in the suit.
Texas imposes a 51 percent bar to recovery. In other words, you retain the right to pursue compensation as long as you are less than 51 percent to blame for an accident.
Lawyers on the plaintiff side had suggested that total damages of at least $100 million —including exemplary damages — would be appropriate.
Michael K. Hurst of Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann, representing Vela’s aged, ailing parents, said he and co-counsel Ray Thomas of McAllen, who represented Vela’s widow, were “highly disappointed” by the verdict. However, Hurst added, “throughout my career, my clients and I have greatly benefited from our tremendous jury system. I remain as stalwartly supportive as ever of our cases being decided by juries of our peers. … We empowered this jury with all of the tools necessary to render their decision. I would not change a thing about how this case was presented.”
An appeal once Judge Purdy enters a final judgment is certain.
Jim Grau, managing partner of Grau Law in Dallas, who represented OGT, the electrical contractor that employed Vela, said: “Of course we are pleased with the verdict for OGT. We are mindful of the loss suffered by Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Vela’s parents. We want to thank Judge Purdy and the jury for their hard work and dedication. And we extend our respect and compliments to our opposing counsel, who did a tremendous job.”
J.J. Knauff of the Miller Knauff Law Firm of Dallas, principal attorney for EnLink Midstream, declined to comment.
Vela was killed while working in the motor control center of the Lobo III plant, in Mentone, Texas. According to testimony in an 11-day trial in Purdy’s court, Vela was working unsupervised on a live electrical cabinet that was, according to a work order, supposed to have been “cold,” or de-energized.
Another defendant, Applied Consultants Inc., the on-site safety representative hired by EnLink to oversee an expansion of the Lobo III natural gas plant, settled with Vela’s family during trial for $2 million.
Defense lawyers contended at trial that Vela, an experienced electrician, caused his own death by doing work beyond what he was authorized to do and by improperly removing isolation barriers, or safety shields, in the electrical cabinet, thereby exposing live conductors.
Vela should have known, Knauff told the jury in his closing argument, that power was flowing to the electrical cabinet, because – among other reasons – there were lights and a display screen on in the cabinet.
“We do think that he was negligent. … I don’t like telling you that, but that’s what the facts are,” Grau said in his closing argument.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct an earlier version that reported the damages awarded to the family was $5 million. The total is $3.94 million.