SALEM — An Essex County Superior Court judge granted preliminary approval of the $143 million class action settlement to compensate residents and businesses in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover affected by the Sept. 13, 2018, Merrimack Valley fires and explosions.

The disaster, caused by overpressurized lines being handled by contractors working for Columbia Gas, devastated hundreds of homes and businesses throughout the Merrimack Valley and caused the death of a Lawrence teenager.

Eight residents and business owners, acting on behalf of all those affected by the disaster, filed suit against the company, seeking damages for anyone who "resided, owned property, or owned a business" in any of the three communities.

People who suffered physical injury are not included in the settlement, although people who suffered emotional distress are included, according to the preliminary approval agreement issued Friday by Superior Court Judge James Lang.

The settlement, which could benefit roughly 175,000 residents and businesses, was the subject of a court hearing Monday afternoon, during which attorneys for the plaintiffs explained the outline of the settlement, which calls for six categories of lump-sum payouts, ranging from $50 for a “nominal” disruption to as much as $15,000 for a “major” disruption.

The next major step in the process comes Jan. 9, 2020, the deadline by which residents and business owners must submit claims, proving how they were affected by the disaster.

To that end, the attorneys for the class-action suit will be holding a series of forums for residents in the next couple of months "to apprise people of their rights and the process for obtaining compensation as we move forward.”

On Feb. 7, 2020, attorneys will seek final approval of the settlement, as well as approval of attorneys' fees, which are expected to be about $24 million.

Co-lead counsels Frank Petosa of Morgan & Morgan, John Roddy of Bailey & Glasser, and Elizabeth Graham of Grant & Eisenhofer, issued a statement about the settlement Friday, saying it "represents a significant step forward in bringing the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover the compensation they’re entitled to in a timely manner."

They also said it would be important for people to attend the informational forums.

“We know many residents and business owners have questions about the settlement," they said. "We want them to know: We hear you. We want to provide a forum for community members to ask any questions they may have. To that end, we will be scheduling town hall meetings now that the terms of the settlement have been preliminary approved – both in-person and online, in English and Spanish."

The dates of those meetings have not been announced.

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