Lawyers, Lightning and Building Codes

06/24/2015 09:59 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Even if you balk at the idea that plaintiffs' attorneys can become "the common people's attorneys general," you still have to admit that some of the research and advocacy that goes into lawsuits can help advance public safety - we may collectively mock those slip-and-fall lawsuits, but they sure get those "wet floor" signs into place.

In a similar vein of of logic, it turns out that houses being hit by lightning is more common and dangerous than you might think, and lawyers are fueling calls for reform. According to the Insurance Information Institute, analyzing homeowner insurance data, there were 114,740 insurer paid lightning claims in 2013. Thousands of house fires are attributed to "god-like" event lightning strikes while the science to understand the impact and power of lightning evolves.

(This is Lightening Safety Awareness Week organized by NOAA and the National Weather Service, June 21-27.)

After being an issue for years, home-lightening strikes are getting some publicity, especially as they relate to the flexible lines that carry natural gas into buildings. The pipes - called CSST - were the target of a recent U.S. Senate "safety resolution." Texas recently declared a "CSST Safety Day" as part of a "yellow CSST" awareness campaign involving the National Association of State Fire Marshals. But that outreach only targets "legacy" installations and experts feel some 6 million U.S. homes might be at some risk.

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of lawsuits around the country over the gas lines, and things are turning still uglier. In recent weeks, for example, a strongly worded warning letter being circulated among the building community outlines new research questioning the safety of gas lines and asking questions about what's being claimed. But the research warning comes not from government regulators or industry trade groups, but from a six-lawyer plaintiff's firm in Plano, Texas.

Granted, this is not exactly altruistic attorney week. N. Scott Carpenter explained that his firm sent that letter to builders and distributors nationally hoping to obtain information for an Alabama lawsuit. (My producer spoke to Mr. Carpenter and says there might be some doubt about the 100 percent, cross-my-heart transparency of some manufacturers.)

Carpenter's firm is no stranger to the issue. They were involved in what's become a landmark natural gas piping case. In Lubbock, Texas, a man was killed in a lightning strike-related gas explosion that officials blamed on so-called "yellow pipe," which can fail if hit by lightning. Industry and government guidelines say that bonding the yellow pipe into safety systems really helps. Despite that, Lubbock banned yellow pipe in new home construction.

It's a national issue. The Pittsburgh Tribune newspaper reports last month that "... thousands of homes in Pennsylvania are at risk of fire because of CSST that has not been properly grounded," quoting Rob Peirce, a local attorney representing plaintiffs. "Even with proper grounding, experts do not agree that the risk of arcing is completely eliminated."

So, what to do? You can't go back to the old iron pipes, even if cost didn't prohibit retrofitting, you just can't make it work. Going forward, though, Carpenter says there's already one commercially marketed pipe that met his highest testing standard. There are two general levels of CSST, and one, based on testing is remarkably better. (Truly scary lightning assimilation testing on gas piping can be found on

"FlashShield is the only one [to meet the higher tests]," Carpenter says, referring to a specific brand of higher-standard CSST black pipe that uses materials - similar to those that help protect airplanes - to metallically "jacket" the pipe. At least that indicates that greater safety is attainable and he says the cost difference is "pennies on the foot," like 6 or 7 cents. Given there are even reports of failures with the lower grade "black" CSST, the safety of homeowners with a lower standard of gas piping is compromised unless a higher standard is adopted.

NBC News, in reporting the Lubbock death, noted that "lightning ignites 22,600 fires a year in the U.S.... and "that figure includes approximately 4,290 home fires, which cause a majority of the associated losses. Fire officials in some states say the tighter regulations requiring CSST to be grounded and bonded have substantially reduced the number of lightning-caused home fires."

The TV report quoted Mitch Guthrie, an engineer and member of the NFPA's Lightning Protection Committee who has not testified for or against manufacturers, saying "I just want to know the solution to finding the problem, because the problem is out there."

Well, yes. The problem is out there. But back to my point: A common theme is that plaintiffs' attorneys are doing the research and blowing the whistle on a real and present safety issue for the U.S. housing market.

Now it's time for the regulators who create the patchwork quilt of U.S. building regulations to follow their lead.