Manhole Explosions: Legal Rights in New York City
While hardly exclusive to New York City, manhole explosions are a problem to which the structure of the city uniquely lends itself. The City of New York contains as many as 350,000 manhole covers across its five boroughs, and those covers rest on top of an elaborate network of gas lines and underground cable, much of it 100 years old or more. The well-worn cables are vulnerable to damage from road salt in the winter, overheating due to high air conditioner usage in the summer, and even gnawing rats year-round.
Need to Know
- New York City’s longstanding underground cable and gas systems are vulnerable to the conditions that cause manhole incidents.
- Manhole cover explosions occur when underground chemical gas pushes the manhole cover into the air.
- Most of the city’s cable system is the province of Consolidated Edison, or Con Edison.
When the insulation designed to protect the wires smolders and burns, the resulting chemical gas expands underground until the manhole cover has nowhere to go but up. At some point you may have read the “contents under pressure” warning on a carbonated drink, advising the consumer to position the bottle away from others while opening, in case of a flying cap. If chemical pressure can turn this piece of plastic into something worthy of a warning label, imagine its effect on another type of container lid: one made from up to 300 pounds of cast iron.
What You Need to Know If You’ve Been Injured in a Manhole Explosion
If you or someone accompanying you is hurt in a manhole cover explosion, your best way forward is to remain calm. New York City residents and visitors alike retain painful memories of 9/11, and any explosion or eruption on a city street is likely to cause panic.
In the days immediately following a manhole explosion incident, if appropriate, seek an evaluation from a competent medical professional. Ideally, you should start by alerting your insurance company to the event. Insurance companies may expedite their processes in the case of a traumatic and unusual incident, allowing you to receive any medical evaluation or treatment you may need with the least possible delay.
If you are contacted by a representative of Con Edison, be sure to consult with a competent attorney who can help you navigate the discussion, should you choose to have it. It is important to keep in mind that the company will be striving to bolster their defense, and that they are likely to try and leverage your words—even words spoken casually and innocuously—against you if you attempt to bring a case against them later. For instance, it is human nature to downplay injuries in the immediate wake of an accident, but should you do this in a conversation with Con Edison, their lawyers will cite it as evidence that you exaggerated the extent of your injury after the fact. Your lawyer should advise you on whether the conversation will benefit your case, and, if you decide to have it, will prepare you to have it successfully.
Who Is Liable in a Manhole Explosion Incident?
Claims related to manhole incidents typically fall in the category of premises liability, which assigns responsibility to the owner of the premises on which the incident occurred. But who is responsible for a New York City manhole?
A variety of agencies own various manholes in New York City, among them:
- Consolidated Edison (Con Edison)
- The New York City Fire Department
- The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA)
- National Grid
Most manhole explosion incidents originate, not with the manhole itself, but with the underground cable system which it accesses, the majority of which is the domain of Con Edison. Still, determining liability in a manhole incident presents challenges. It is one thing to assert—for instance—that Con Edison is responsible for its share of the city’s underground electricity service, and another to hold the utility accountable for every individual inch of the 94,000 miles of cable in its system. Aside from the question of summoning enough manpower to monitor the structure, many of the factors that affect the cables, such as rats and weather conditions, are easily characterized by a defense as natural occurrences that elude a sustainable system of preventative measures.
The City of New York contracts Con Edison, and the two entities may have different municipal agreements in different city locations. These agreements may contain clauses requiring Con Edison to accept responsibility for accidents related to its work, or to pay the city back for any expenses incurred due to liability. The complexities of this relationship heighten the need to have an experienced and thoughtful attorney advising you early on.
While the unfolding of your case may show either Con Edison or the City of New York to be more culpable for the explosion, at the beginning of the process your attorney may opt to sue both parties. Because the City of New York has strict deadlines for filing a notice of claim, it is wise to proceed as quickly as possible. For more information on suing the City of New York, see here.
Below are a few examples showing where liability might reside in a manhole incident.
- If an agency responsible for a manhole is alerted to the existence of a problem, that agency may be charged with negligence if it fails to respond in a timely fashion. For example, a pedestrian calls Con Edison to report the location of a smoking manhole. If Con Edison fails to investigate, and a manhole explosion occurs hours later, Con Edison could be held liable for resulting injury. Negligence could also occur at other points of contact—for instance, if the caller accesses the Department of Transportation, which responds to reports about manhole cover security, the DOT could be held responsible if it fails to alert Con Ed.
- Con Edison or the City of New York itself may be liable if found to have contributed to any condition that caused a manhole explosion. Other parties that could be held responsible include independent companies and other contractors serving Con Edison, should it be proven that their activities caused a manhole accident to occur.
- The manhole itself is a separate utility from the underground cable system it accesses, which is typically the source of a manhole explosion incident. However, manhole security—that is, the safety precautions that relate to the manhole itself—can contribute to manhole explosions and impact liability. For example, in one incident, Con Edison and the City of New York failed to communicate about properly sealing conduits between two of their respective manholes. In that instance, both parties bore a share of responsibility for the explosion that resulted.
Manhole Explosions: A Preventable Danger
Manhole explosions in New York City are far more common than many New Yorkers realize, with some sources estimating up to three per day during the winter months. Happily, newer installments in suburbs outside the city are taking steps toward instituting safer mechanisms—for instance, by using sewer grates instead of manhole covers to improve airflow. Even without an overhaul of the system, underground safety measures, such as monitoring devices and cooling fans, may go a long way toward reducing the problem. We encourage the City of New York to work with experts to resolve this ongoing danger and are committed to helping victims gain whatever compensation they need to continue living their lives.
If you or a loved one is injured in a New York City manhole incident, it is critical to find a personal injury attorney who is experienced, particularly if the City of New York is a possible defendant. The attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy serve all five boroughs of New York City as well as the entirety of New York State and have attained more than 300 case results exceeding $1,000,000 each, including a $6.25 million settlement in a New York City explosion case. Contact the experienced personal injury attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy to receive a free legal consultation by calling 212-736-5300, or by filling out our online contact form.