Columbia Promises to Pay Gas Explosion Claims

The Massachusetts utility company says it will make good on customer losses related to a September 2018 natural gas explosion. These victims now face an age-old question in class action cases: Is the settlement offer fair?

Company officials say they have set up several centers to examine claims related to the explosion. That blast killed one person, injured dozens more, and caused significant disruptions for the affected homes and businesses. In a statement, the company said it would reimburse customers for most losses and also cover the costs of switching to an alternative fuel, such as petroleum or electricity. NiSource CEO Joe Hamrock offerent few details, especially as to the size of the remediation fund. “We haven’t established all of those figures, so it’s too early to do that,” he said. “Right now our focus is on establishing, re-establishing lives in the community, taking care of all of the issues that our affected citizens are working through,” he added. NiSource is Columbia’s parent company. Mr. Hamrock also hinted that the company might increase rates to pay for the fund.

Columbia/NiSource promised to take other actions as well, such as hosting a job fair for explosion victims.


What Happened?

Many towns in Massachusetts, and especially Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence, have grown substantially in recent years. Many of these families depend on natural gas for their heating and cooking needs. Over time, the company increased the gas pressure to accommodate growth.

Sometime around four o’clock on the afternoon of September 13, ten-alarm fires broke out in the area as the natural gas exploded. Governor Charlie Baker soon declared a state of emergency, forcing residents to evacuate.

Safety inspectors quickly determined that over-pressurization in ancient pipes caused the explosions. Columbia Gas should have had protective safety measures in place, but such a system was nowhere to be found.


The Company’s Settlement Offer

NiSource’s offer to compensate for losses has nothing to do with customer well-being and everything to do with limiting the company’s liability.

In situations like this, it’s very tempting to take such a settlement offer and try to move on. In some cases, that may be the best course of action. But it is so difficult to determine if the company’s offer is fair.

NiSource will probably compensate victims for most economic losses, such as property damage and medical bills. But in a disaster like this, damages are much more widespread than a few doctor bills.

Economic losses also includes indirect losses. For example, potential customers had to avoid the area, because of the state of emergency. So, businesses all over the area, and not just the ones directly affected by the explosion, lost money that day.

The victims may have hidden economic losses as well. Exposure to natural gas often causes significant breathing problems. Many times, these issues may be hidden for years. Usually, victims only feel the effects of toxins like natural gas many years after exposure. By then, if they accepted a prior settlement offer, it is probably far too late to obtain compensation for these injuries.

Finally, Columbia has said nothing about noneconomic losses. Many people lost their health and all their worldly possessions in the gas explosions and fires. They deserve full compensation for all these losses. It’s very doubtful that a company settlement will make good on all these losses.

With all the question marks surrounding the settlement offer, it makes sense to meet with an attorney and keep all your legal options open.


What You Can Do

An experienced attorney advocates for you in all forums. That includes both the courthouse and a negotiation session. If the company settlement is an option, it’s important that there be documentation about all your losses. You will probably not get another bite at the apple.

Filing an independent damage claim may be a better idea. These actions usually become large class action lawsuits, and that could mean millions of dollars in damages. Some potential theories include:

  • Strict Liability: Natural gas is an inherently dangerous substance. It is unstable and prone to explosion no matter how careful the defendant is. So, the law provides for strict liability in the event of actual damages. Victim/plaintiffs in these cases normally only have to prove cause.
  • Negligence: As mentioned, Columbia’s natural gas pipe system was hopelessly outdated and unsuited to handle the volume of gas pouring into the affected communities. This neglect constitutes a clear lack of care, which is the essence of a negligence case. In claims like these, many juries award substantial punitive damages, in addition to compensatory damages.
  • Public Nuisance: Nuisance is an effective legal weapon in mass tort cases like these. The rules of evidence are a bit different in these situations, so it is usually easier to establish liability for damages.

In all these claims, victim/plaintiffs must establish liability by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not). That’s the lowest standard of proof in Massachusetts law.

A few dollars from the gas company will probably not fully compensate all victims for all their losses. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We routinely handle cases in Essex County, Massachusetts and nearby jurisdictions.