SALEM, Mass. — Class action attorneys handling the $143 million Merrimack Valley gas disaster settlement criticized Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, saying he made a political, not legal, argument by asking for their $28 million in legal fees to be reduced by 75%.

"From the inception, here Mayor Rivera makes not a legal argument, but a political one. From the inception of the case he has disparaged the lawyers involved and the profession at large in court and in the media, without any basis," court documents filed this week by the class action attorneys state. 

The legal fees in the $143 million settlement would drop from $28 million to $7 million if Judge James Lang accepts Rivera's request. 

By his estimate, Rivera said attorneys involved in the settlement are making $44,000 daily for their work since the gas disaster Sept. 13, 2018. 

A final hearing on the gas disaster civil action lawsuit was held Feb. 27 in Salem Superior Court. The settlement includes thousands of dollars of lump sum and itemized payments for gas disaster victims in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover.

Lang took the settlement under advisement but has not issued a final ruling. 

On Tuesday, the class action attorneys filed another motion and supplemental memorandum in the case, in which they contested their legal fees being reduced. In the memorandum, they pointed to multi-million dollar judgements for attorneys in other class action suits. And they took issue with Rivera's previous statements about their legal fees in this case. 

Rivera has stated that immediately following the gas disaster, a "vulture culture" of lawyers looking for clients swept into the communities affected by the disaster. 

During the final hearing, the class action attorneys said Rivera made a statement that "contained a pejorative narrative of lawyers 'victimizing' class members and he even alluded to lawyers ostensibly advancing settlement payouts in return for taking a cut."

"This message is simply false, it has no place in either the legal or public forum," according to the memorandum. 

The class action attorneys, as they did during the final hearing, also reference an opinion article written by the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly editorial board titled "Unfair to criticize legal fees in gas explosion case." The article stated "the lawyers are not the bad guys here." 

"A reduction in the requested fee would lend credence to the mayor’s accusations, marring the class lawyers’ reputations and the public impression of the legal profession at large," according to the memorandum. 

Reached Thursday afternoon, Rivera said he stands behind his comments regarding cutting the legal fees. He is also working on a follow-up memorandum to Judge Lang, he said. 

The Merrimack Valley gas disaster was the "biggest gas disaster in the history of this country," said Rivera, adding the $28 million in legal fees "is ridiculous." 

Neither lead class action attorney John Roddy, of Bailey and Glasser LLP, nor a spokesperson for the class action attorneys returned Eagle-Tribune messages seeking comment. 

Former South Lawrence resident and gas disaster victim Tania Gonzalez described the $28 million in proposed legal fees as a "feeding frenzy of funds" for the class action attorneys.  

"They are not working for us. They are blatantly representing their best interests, their 401(k)s and retirement nest eggs," said Gonzalez, who spoke publicly at two Superior Court hearings on the gas disaster settlement. 

She now lives in Amesbury and said she suffers from both financial problems and post traumatic stress disorder since the disaster. 

"I'm humbly proud that both myself and Mayor Daniel Rivera are truly for the people since the inception of this cataclysmic catastrophe," she said Thursday. 

The average settlement payment to a family of four is estimated to be $8,750, Lang said during last week's final hearing. 

A total of 11,077 claims have been filed to date from residents and businesses in the three affected communities. That figure includes 10,432 residential claims and 645 claims from area businesses that suffered losses or went out of business altogether.

The claims, which encompass 35,000 people, run the gamut from spoiled food, to lodging, to property damage and more, according to final hearing testimony.

During the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster, caused by overpressurization of gas lines, Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed, three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt, and damages are estimated at $1 billion.

About 50,000 people were forced to evacuate and the severity of the damage depended on the age of appliances people had. Five homes were destroyed and 131 properties damaged, according to findings by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The deadline to file claims in the class action suit was stretched from Jan. 9 to Jan. 31 of this year. Extending that deadline resulted in roughly 5,000 additional claims being filed, said class action attorney Leo Boyle during the hearing.

The final hearing on the $143 million settlement came a day after Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to federal charges and agreed to pay a $53 million fine.

Competing utility Eversource Energy announced its $1.1 billion plan to buy the Massachusetts portion of the company that same night.

Columbia Gas officials have said they have spent a billion dollars already on gas disaster recovery in the communities.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

 

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