Major lawsuit close to end

RYAN HUTTON/Staff photoStratton Lloyd, vice president for Community Leadership and CCO of Essex County Community Foundation, center, speaks at a press conference outside the Rose & Dove on Chickering Road in North Andover regarding the “Rock the Register” initiative to bring customers back to local businesses hurt by the gas disaster.

A team of attorneys say they are close to putting money in the hands of thousands of Merrimack Valley residents and business owners blindsided by disaster a year ago.

Their detailed plan to divide $143 million paid out by Columbia Gas is expected to become public within two weeks, said attorney John Roddy of Bailey & Glasser, representing gas disaster victims.

Settlements have already been reached in two separate cases with particular families: the Rondons, who lost an 18-year-old son proud of his newly minted license that day, and the Figueroas, whose home exploded and fell on the teen in their driveway.

Columbia Gas will be out $1 billion by the time all lawsuits are settled and repairs are made, spokesman Dean Lieberman wrote in a statement.

The gas company is responsible for sudden destruction in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover on Sept. 13, 2018, when contractors flooded an old gas line with 12 times more pressure than it could handle, attorneys say.

There were explosions, flames and chaos. Ten-alarm fires caused catastrophic losses.

Court records in the cases describe an ordinary day turned apocalyptic.

The consolidated class action paperwork filed Aug. 23 has anecdotes from homeowners, renters, business owners and a religious leader, all bonded by synchronized suffering.

The lawsuit is on behalf of those named and all others similarly situated. For most of the last year, individuals were able to file claims for their losses.

The suit includes people who suffered emotional distress, but does not include those with physical injuries, court documents say. Separate legal dealings allocated money to municipalities needing to repair roadways and infrastructure.

Robert McNaughton, who rented a place in North Andover with his then-fiance, son and infant daughter, shared his story with an attorney. It took almost until Thanksgiving to navigate customer service representatives to get a repair person to his home to even evaluate the damage, court documents state.

All of their meals were eaten at restaurants or from takeout containers for nearly 60 days. The family also had to dish out money for portable heaters to keep warm, according to the lawsuit.

Irasema Zapata, a house cleaner in Andover, and Marlon Martinez say they were forced to sleep in their car for three weeks. When their kids returned from a trip to their native Guatemala the day after the disaster, they slept in another of the family’s cars.

On Oct. 6, 2018, they moved together to a one-bedroom hotel room in Nashua paid for by Columbia Gas. They returned to Lawrence three weeks later, but not home.

They lived in a trailer at the South Lawrence Common until Nov. 29 without television, internet, or reliable pipes, according to the lawsuit.

The owners of Lawrence’s Cavallo Restaurant and Diner told attorneys that the place will never be the same.

Though allowed to return back to the South Broadway eatery three days after the disaster, staff was met with no gas or water and a refrigerator filled with food that had spoiled during the power outage.

The number of guests dining at Cavallo’s has yet to rebound, the lawsuit states.

A half mile away, a nonprofit place of worship called Capilla Evangelica Hispana was left an unwelcoming shell.

Owner and spiritual leader Luis Pineyro was in the building when sirens started to bellow, a sign that something was dangerously wrong. He was told to evacuate, the lawsuit states.

By the time he was allowed to safely return, he said there was a significant amount of standing water from an exploded hot water heater.

Under the circumstances — no electricity, heat, hot water or natural gas for weeks — the number of parishioners and students dwindled, according to the lawsuit.

The attorneys say there are over 150,000 stories like these across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

Recommended for you