Columbia Gas has been named in various lawsuits after a gas explosion that caused fires in Lawrence and Andover, Massachusetts. Over 60 homes were damaged and the neighborhood was evacuated for a period of time. At least 25 injuries were reported and one teenager was killed. Leonel Rondon was 18 when the explosion caused a brick chimney to fall and fatally injure him. His family has filed a wrongful death suit and is said to be “broken apart” from the incident
Rondon's father was watching a home set ablaze from the explosion on television; however, he did not realize that his son had been a victim. He says that a homeowner had turned on a stove unit that ignited a blaze. Rondon enjoyed music and was performing well in biology and math courses. Leonel had actually just obtained his driver's license on the day of the incident. The Lawrence Public Schools, where he attended, expressed their condolences publically. They had grief counseling professionals available for students. Rondon has three siblings that will miss him.
Class Action Suit
Columbia's parent company is NiSource. They have apparently received over $400 million in claims from the incident. Donald Brown, the company CFO, says that they have approximately $800 million in liability insurance coverage. A class-action suit has also been filed asserting that the company was negligent. This negligence led to many residents having to leave their home for nearly four days. Responders acted quickly to shut down all gas and electrical supplies in the region. In the meanwhile, firefighters got several fires under control. Governor Charlie Baker ordered that an outside provider assess the repairs that are needed.
Brigham McCown, a former leader of the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, says the organization needs to be held accountable and fined. In a recent Senate committee hearing some people called for more drastic measures, such as the resignation of the chief executive. Dan Rivera, mayor of Lawrence, was among the most outspoken and feels the company should be shut down. The company is also currently the subject of a criminal investigation.
Company Responsibility & Liability
The U.S. Attorney's office is still investigating whether any grounds exist for criminal charges. Steve Bryant, company president, sent condolences and explained the organization has placed $10 million in a fund for relief measures. Because of pending litigation the company was not able to elaborate with detail. A similar recent event took place involving Pacific Gas & Electric, a utility provider in the San Bruno, California area. In that case the company was found to have criminal responsibility and a maximum fine of $3 million was imposed.
Evidence of Gross Negligence
Analyst Charles Fishman explained that NiSource is a company with adequate finances to sustain this situation. He did say that if evidence of gross negligence were to surface, the company's long-term financial viability could be tested. He is doubtful that gross negligence was demonstrated in this incident. Gross negligence is when a party acts in a reckless manner that disregards the safety of the public. It extends beyond mere indifference and the actions are done consciously.