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GRAVES v. UNITED STATES

May 12, 1981

Carolyn D. GRAVES, et al., Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES of America, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GREENE

MEMORANDUM

This is an action under the Federal Tort Claims Act. Plaintiff claims that the Air Force was negligent in failing to provide a second exit in a mechanical room located in a dining hall building on the Bolling Air Force Base. As a consequence of this alleged negligence, plaintiff's husband died when, after an explosion, he was unable to escape.

 The evidence adduced at the trial showed that the mechanical room at the Base houses, among other things, three so-called converters or boilers in which cold water is heated for use in kitchen and cafeteria operations by means of very high temperature water piped from a remote location. George Graves, Sr., an employee of Capital Boiler Works, Inc., was dispatched to this location together with several co-workers on August 22, 1978, to make repairs on one of the converters. More specifically, it had become necessary to replace a gasket between two of the converter's large metal components. An attempt was made to install a new, appropriate flexitallic gasket, but that gasket proved to be unsatisfactory. Another flexitallic gasket was unavailable and, in order to complete the repairs within the time required by the Air Force, asbestos gaskets were used instead, with the approval of the representative of the Air Force on the location. The first asbestos gasket also failed, apparently because it was too thin. Eventually, a second asbestos gasket was installed and, unlike the previous gaskets, it stopped the converter assembly from leaking.

 At that juncture, Mr. Graves was designated to open the appropriate valves to bring the system into operating condition. He did so standing on a ladder somewhat to the left rear of the converter. When the valves were opened, normal pressure and heat in the system (400 pounds pressure per square inch at 400o F) had begun to build up, and a portion of the gasket blew out. Hot water and steam immediately began escaping through the opening and very quickly enveloped the entire room. Since the converter and hence the steam were located between Mr. Graves and the exit door, he had no option but to retreat toward the rear of the room. Expert testimony indicated that the steam reached him in that location in about 15 seconds. He remained in the area for approximately 3 to 5 minutes, ultimately crawling out through the steam to the exit. Mr. Graves sustained substantial second and third degree burns and died three weeks later.

 As indicated, this action claims negligence by the Air Force in failing to provide an exit in that portion of the room occupied by Mr. Graves, and it further claims that this negligence was the proximate cause of his injuries and his death.

 I

 The District of Columbia Building Code requires that in boiler and furnace rooms "two unobstructed and accessible exits remote from each other shall be provided ...." See Chapter 6, Article 2, section 3-608 of the Building Code. There clearly was no compliance with this provision. *fn1" But the government argues that under Section 3-107 of the 1961 edition of the District of Columbia Building Code, the Code does not apply to premises owned by the United States, and that it is therefore not bound thereby. The problem with that argument is that the Air Force has in effect waived Section 107, Air Force Manual 88-15 providing that the engineering design of Air Force standards will "comply with the local building code to the maximum practical extent" (unless local standards are lower than Air Force standards). See also AFR 127-101 and Fire Protection Engineer Navdocks Design Manual 8. Thus, a prima facie case of negligence was made out on the basis of the rule of Elliott and Bowman, supra.

 Even if the provisions of the District of Columbia Code are deemed not to be technically applicable to this Air Force installation, the result is the same. The parties submitted a number of building and safety codes to establish general industry standards, including the so-called Life Safety Code, the BOCA Code, the Uniform Building Code, and the Southern Standards Building Code. As a general matter, these various codes prohibit dead ends in excess of a depth of fifty feet, and they require more than one exit in locations where highly hazardous equipment is located. *fn2"

 Thus, negligence was established and, indeed, the government's arguments come down less to a claim that this was not so than to a claim that the negligence and the violation did not constitute the proximate cause of the injury. In this regard, it is asserted that, although the distance between the farthest wall in the equipment room and the door was two or three feet over the required 50 feet, this would have made no difference, and further that a second exit on the second floor above the equipment room would not have helped Mr. Graves because he could not have reached that exit any more than he was able to reach the principal exit. The Court does not find these arguments to be persuasive.

 The argument with respect to the second exit is even more untenable. The upstairs room could have been reached only by a stairway which was neither marked nor obvious as leading to an outside area. Indeed, that stairway did not lead to an outside area at all but to the roof of the building. Defendant's own expert conceded that for this reason it did not qualify as an exit within the meaning of the building and safety regulations. Thus, the government's argument is essentially of a bootstrap variety: it concedes that there was no second exit but asserts that had there been such an exit, it would not have helped the deceased. One answer to that theory is that had the second exit been in the appropriate location that is, truly "remote from the first exit" it would have been where the deceased was trapped, and he would have escaped with little or no injury. The other answer is that the provision of a hypothetical exit on the second floor would not have satisfied the safety codes in any event because it was neither marked nor obvious nor remote in a realistic sense from the first exit.

 The Court finds that the upstairs was not part of the equipment room and that within that room the Air Force unreasonably and negligently failed to provide a second exit. It follows that defendant's failure in that regard was the proximate cause of Mr. Graves' injury and ...


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