A judge has consolidated the lawsuits facing Columbia Gas of Massachusetts and its parent company, NiSource Inc., streamlining the legal process for those affected by the Merrimack Valley gas disaster.
The orders, from superior court Judge James Lang, also encourage the plaintiffs and the gas companies to settle, rather than proceed with litigation, “which could take years,” according to a press release.
The gas fires and explosions that erupted across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover killed a Lawrence teenager, injured two dozen others and left more than 100 homes damaged or destroyed.
Twelve cases have been filed as of Jan. 14 and specially assigned to Lang, court documents show.
Eight of the cases will now be part of aggregate proceedings, including those filed by the owners of a North Andover home where a day care business also operated, according to court documents.
Four will proceed as "individual cases," according to the court documents, including a civil lawsuit from Lawrence residents Homayoun and Juana Maali, and one involving Omayra Figueroa of Lawrence and her children. Shakira Figueroa, 21, was critically injured when the family's 35 Chickering Road home exploded on Sept. 13. As of December, she had undergone six surgeries on the lower half of her body, according to her attorney.
The class and mass action lawsuits have now been consolidated under Francely Acosta v. Columbia Gas of Mass. and NiSource Inc., the first lawsuit to be filed, according to a press release.
Lang's orders also stay the consolidated litigation for 90 days, beginning Monday, to allow the plaintiffs' attorneys time to “try to negotiate a global resolution with the defense,” according to the press release.
Going forward, John Roddy of Bailey & Glasser, Frank Petosa of Morgan & Morgan, and Elizabeth Graham of Grant & Eisenhofer will serve as the plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel — part of the court-established leadership structure for the cases, which was proposed by a group of the plaintiffs' attorneys.
In a statement, the co-lead attorneys said the consolidation would “serve to expedite a resolution for the communities crushed by these explosions.”
The statement continues: “We need to get these families and businesses back on their feet, and we believe that the fastest and most effective way to do that is to mediate with Columbia and NiSource. They have accepted full responsibility for this tragedy, and we see mediation as a chance to provide timely relief to the community as a whole – both the safe restoration of all gas service and financial compensation – quickly and fairly."
The court also appointed a plaintiffs’ steering committee to guide the litigation.
Follow Lisa Kashinsky on Twitter @lisakashinsky.