Utility reaches $143m settlement on lawsuits in Merrimack Valley blasts
Columbia Gas of Massachusetts announced Monday that it had settled all class-action lawsuits stemming from the Merrimack Valley gas explosions that ripped through Lawrence, Andover and North Andover in September, killing one person and dislocating thousands.
The $143 million settlement, the latest legal fallout from the disaster, needs approval from Essex Superior Court Judge James Lang, who has been overseeing the litigation. About 147,000 residents and more than 10,000 businesses will be eligible for payments, based on how they were affected by the explosion, plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
“This settlement — reached in an unprecedented ten months after the incident — will provide a full measure of compensation to thousands of residents and businesses in a transparent and expeditious manner, under rigorous judicial oversight,” said Frank Petosa, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Businesses and residents that “suffered unusually high damage” will be able to apply for funding beyond the standard amount that will be offered, the lawyers said.
But Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera wondered how much money would remain after the lawyers take their portion.
“The question is: after the attorneys take their cut, how much are residents and businesses really left with?” Rivera said in a statement. “My hope is that the people and businesses in these class action lawsuits are truly being made whole and not being victimized yet again.”
John Roddy, the co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said attorneys’ fees will be “substantially below” the standard 25 percent.
Columbia Gas has been managing a claims process, overseen by a mediator, since the explosions. The same process will be used for the $143 million settlement until it wins court approval, when an independent claims administrator will take control. The administrator will handle the special funding requests.
“All residents and businesses in Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover will be eligible to file claims through this process just as they currently can,’’ Columbia Gas said.
A Columbia Gas spokesman, Dean Lieberman, said the settlement “encapsulates the vast majority of the pending litigation related to the event.”
The settlement is separate from the $80 million paid to the three municipalities in May and settlements with the family of Leonel Rondon and the Figueroa family.
Rondon, an 18-year-old from Lawrence, was killed when a chimney collapsed on him as he in a car parked in the driveway of the Figueroas’ Lawrence home. The explosion injured several members of the Figueroa family. One provision of the Figueroa family’s settlement is that the company will provide a motorized wheelchair and make other accommodations for a family member who was severely injured.
“What happened last September was tragic,” said Joseph Hamrock, chief executive of NiSource, Columbia Gas’s parent company. “Today marks another important step forward, as we continue to fulfill our commitment to residents and businesses.’’
Petosa said the settlement announced Monday “will provide a full measure of compensation to thousands of residents and businesses in a transparent and expeditious manner, under rigorous judicial oversight.”