U-Haul fined $1 million after fatal food truck explosion in North Philly

Legal representation of victims of a fatal propane tank explosion at 3rd and Wyoming Streets in July of 2014 explain a settlement that awarded $160 million in 2018. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Legal representation of victims of a fatal propane tank explosion at 3rd and Wyoming Streets in July of 2014 explain a settlement that awarded $160 million in 2018. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A federal judge has ordered the U-Haul Co. of Pennsylvania to pay a $1 million fine and serve two years’ probation under a plea deal stemming from a fatal food truck explosion in 2014.

That July, the propane tank aboard La Paradilla Chapina – named for a traditional Guatemalan dish – exploded near Third Street and Wyoming Avenue in North Philadelphia, killing Olga Galdamez and her 17-year-old daughter, Jaylin. The blast also injured nearly a dozen others.

U-Haul was not charged in connection with the deadly episode. The rental and moving company was instead indicted for using untrained workers to fill propane tanks at the Hunting Park location where Galdamez was a customer, a violation of federal regulations for hazardous materials.

U-Haul denies filling the 70-year-old cylinders that exploded on the truck.

Employees allegedly overfilled them, leaving no room for the gas to expand inside the steel containers on a hot summer day.

During a short sentencing hearing  Tuesday in federal court, U-Haul’s attorney, Eric Sitarchuk, said having untrained employees fill propane tanks was “utterly unacceptable.”

“This should not have happened,” said Sitarchuk. He declined to comment after the hearing.

In addition to the $1 million fine, U-Haul has agreed to comply with federal hazardous-materials regulations, implement a propane compliance program, keep detailed records of the propane tanks the company fills, and ensure that no uncertified employees fill tanks.  

“Whatever training the company had in place, it was not effective,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Abrams. 

Before sentencing U-Haul, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kelly said “I have nothing to compare this case with,” in sentencing a corporation to probation.

Miguel Rivera, the former general manager at the Hunting Park store, was sentenced to two years’ probation on Monday.

“The hazardous materials regulations exist to protect public safety, and this prosecution against U-Haul Company of Pennsylvania and store manager Miguel Rivera sends the message that compliance with these protocols is mandatory,” said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Williams.

“Handling hazardous materials properly is critical to safeguard life and property.  These criminal convictions and sentences will ensure proper compliance from the company in order to avoid future tragedies, as well as hopefully to help the victims find some amount of closure.”

This week’s hearings come a little less than a year after U-Haul settled a historic civil lawsuit with victims of the food truck blast.

The company will pay a combined $160 million to two people who were badly injured, as well as Galdamez’ family. The settlement, which also includes an additional, confidential sum, is the largest pretrial settlement in Pennsylvania state court history.

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