N.M. appeals court panel upholds $14.9 million jury award

Chris Rizo Nov. 17, 2008, 12:14pm

Michael Vigil

SANTA FE, N.M. (Legal Newsline)-A $14.9 million jury award to the family of a New Mexico man who was killed in an fiery explosion has been upheld by the state Court of Appeals.

John Everett Stapleton was killed in an explosion after he backed his vehicle into an unfenced gas well near the city of Farmington.

A Santa Fe jury awarded his family $1.92 million in compensatory damages and $13 million in punitive damages.

Energen Resources Corp. had argued before the three-judge appeals court panel that the jury award was unconstitutional because of its excessiveness.

After a trial in 2006, the Birmingham, Ala.-based gas company was found to be negligent and its conduct reckless in the death of 19-year-old Stapleton.

Court papers say after Stapleton backed his car into the wellhead, it exploded.

The appeals court found that the gas company "knew that there was a hazard of someone colliding with the wellhead, knew that if that happened serious bodily harm or death could result, knew that the well site was in a highly-traveled area, knew that erecting a barricade or fence would prevent the hazard, and still chose not to barricade the well site."

The $13 million punitive damages award is "appropriate to achieve the dual goals of punishment and deterrence in this case," Judge Michael Vigil wrote in the panel's opinion.

The family of Cody Amezcua, 20, also of Farmington, who was also killed in the incident, settled its lawsuit against Energen Resources before trial for an undisclosed amount.

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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