Lawyers, in First Suit Against Columbia Gas, Claim Over Pressurized Gas Lines; Seek Damages

First responders and media gathered in Lawrence in the wake of gas-related fires across the Merrimack Valley Sept. 13, 2018. (Jay Saulnier file photograph for WHAV News.)

First responders and media gathered in Lawrence in the wake of September 13's gas-related fires across the Merrimack Valley. (Jay Saulnier photograph for WHAV News.)

The first class action lawsuit against Columbia Gas and its parent NiSource for the explosions and fires that ravaged three communities last week aims to recover residents costs and punish the utilities.

The suit filed Tuesday by Morgan & Morgan of Boston and Plantation, Fla., names one Lawrence resident and up to 8,600 other households as being entitled to receive damages. The 19-page complaint was filed in Essex County Superior Court and charges the gas company with liability, negligence and “continuing private nuisance.” It focuses on over pressurization of gas lines as the cause of the disaster. At a press conference, attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr explained.

“Columbia committed an act of extreme negligence, which was they over pressurized the pipe like 12 times,” he said.

Attorney Frank Petosa told WHAV the exact amount of money being sought remains to be determined.

“It is premature until we understand why this disaster happened and what steps are being taken to insure it doesn’t happen again,” he said.

“Defendants over pressurized the gas distribution system, an outcome with known catastrophic consequences, and which should be prevented at all times by multiple, overlapping and redundant safety systems,” according to court papers.

Eighteen-year-old Leonel Rondon, of  Lawrence, died when a chimney from an exploding home collapsed on the car where he was sitting.

Attorneys Petosa, Tyler S. Church, John A. Yanchunis and Rene F. Rocha said the utility has previously been fined more than $100,000 by the state for improper gas pressure standards and testing, improper leak classification and response procedures, improper corrosion control, failure to follow safety procedures while repairing a leak and puncturing a gas line.

“These gas lines were antiquated in an unsafe condition, and these conditions resulted in the lines become over pressurized,” according to the complaint. Lawyers pointed to a series of Columbia Gas’ own filings and other legal actions and accidents to bolster its case. Last October, for example, Columbia Gas identified 150 leaks in its distribution system that required maintenance and almost $27 million of “leak prone infrastructure and gas distribution lines that required replacement.”