SALEM, Mass. — 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 gas fires and explosions.
The disaster, caused by overpressurized lines being handled by contractors working for Columbia Gas, devastated thousands 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.
'I'm an outlier'
John Farrington, owner of Carleen's restaurant on South Broadway, said he is hopeful that his settlement will exceed the maximum, since he lost a lot more than $15,000.
"I'm an outlier," he said. "We were down for so long (four months) and $15,000 won't make a dent."
He said he's been told that certain businesses can plead before the judge that they are outliers in the case and should be eligible for a higher settlement.
"There is a a mechanism in place, where if you feel as if none of these categories fit your situation, you can do this," he said. "I was hit much harder with the business."
He said insurance companies have been "giving out as little as possible," while the gas company is treating victims poorly, especially in light of the Sept. 27, 2019 gas leak that forced hundreds to evacuate and electricity and gas to be cut off for two days.
Marc Laplante, a city councilor who lives in the affected area, said he isn't sure what kind of claim he will put in for the class action lawsuit, but said the Sept. 27 incident should be included in any kind of final, legal settlement with Columbia Gas.
"That incident of a couple weeks ago triggered a lot of emotions for people who suffered through the 2018 gas crisis," said Laplante. "How does that incident impact that settlement? That incident was very confined, but the impact, emotionally, went way beyond the footprint."
He said he has spoken with people who were "spooked and traumatized by the sirens, helicopters and lack of information."
"People are really on edge," he said. "It triggered something deep in their psyche."
Letter presented to judge
During the hearing Monday, a group of lawmakers led by state Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, presented the judge with a letter addressing the Sept. 27 incident, and how it should be included in the final settlement.
They said they want residents subjected to both gas events to each receive $1,000, businesses involved with both events to get a $5,000 payment, and $20 million to improve “public safety infrastructure” in the three communities. The letter was also signed Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and state Rep. Frank Moran, D-Lawrence.
But attorney Leo Boyle, who represents gas disaster victims in the class action suit, said they were not hired to represent governmental entities and have "no legal basis" for their request.
Boyle said the Sept. 27 gas issue has nothing to do with the Sept. 13, 2018 event and the "settlement we crafted."
Also, he noted, Columbia Gas previously paid the three communities a combined $80 million.
Columbia Gas and its parent company, NiSource, do not oppose the settlement proposal.
The next major step in the process of settling the lawsuit 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.