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Explosion lawsuit is at a standstill

Meanwhile, the owner of Ruben's Auto Repair has returned to work after the April explosion but will need a series of skin-graft operations.

It was a quiet morning April 6, until the explosion at Ruben's Auto Repair. Quickly, neighboring shop owners helped put out flames. A helicopter blocked southbound U.S. 41 to take owner Ruben Arriola to Tampa General Hospital, in critical condition.

Slow healing began.

Since then, the explosion has been investigated and is being investigated some more. Arriola, 51, hired one of Tampa's most prominent trial lawyers, Barry Cohen, to sue Ace Welding Supply and the employee it sent to replace an oxygen tank for Arriola's acetylene torch. Ace has countersued Arriola. The employee, who also suffered burns, left Ace in bitterness. The lawsuit seems stalled.

"It's really sad," said Cohen. "This client of ours is really entitled to be compensated for this injury that was inflicted."

The blast echoed just before noon through a warren of small fabricating shops off U.S. 41, just south of Cypress Lane. Neighbors said it sounded like a tire blowing out. They found the shop and Arriola in flames.

He eventually returned to work, but will need a series of skin-graft surgeries, Cohen said. The delivery driver, David Duty, was hospitalized with milder burns. He also returned to work. But he left Ace, and now drives heavy-equipment trailers for a road builder.

All parties agree the explosion emanated from the filled oxygen tank, just as Duty turned the knob on its pressure regulator. They disagree on why.

Arriola's lawsuit charges Duty's gloves were greasy. Cohen adds that Duty may have turned the knob too quickly.

Duty said the gloves were three days old. In court papers, he and Ace say Arriola had defective equipment, such as the regulator and hoses, on his torch.

Duty, 33, said he left Ace partly because it paid none of his $30,000 in medical costs, and its attorney won't represent him in the lawsuit.

"They hung me out there on a limb," he said.

Duty is representing himself. He said a $100 Dodge truck is his only asset.

Neither Ace's owner nor his attorney returned telephone calls. The lawsuit has seen no substantive activity since July.

Cohen said Ace apparently carried no liability insurance.

"I just don't see how a company can engage in this dangerous type of practice and doesn't have liability insurance," he said.

Cohen said he is exploring whether the manufacturer of the equipment involved is liable. If not, he probably won't pursue the lawsuit, he said.

"It would cost us a lot of money to litigate this thing," he said.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration also looked into the explosion.

It concluded it didn't have jurisdiction over Arriola's business, because he employed only himself. OSHA cited Ace in October for not having regulations on the operation of oxygen tanks available to its employees, apparently because the regulations had been sent to the company's attorney. The citation carried no penalty.

Otherwise, said OSHA's area director Larry Falck, "We could not find anything in the regulations that we could cite."

_ Bill Coats

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