Late last week, a string of gas explosions rocked three Massachusetts towns just north of Boston. Over 60 gas fires led to one death and over 25 injuries, more than 400 people in shelters, and about 18,000 customers losing power for over three days. Hundreds of investigators are on the scene to determine what happened, but one thing's for sure: Governor Charlie Baker removed Columbia Gas as the monopolistic provider in the area, replacing it with Eversource, who will also be overseeing all restoration efforts.
But in addition to losing the business, is Columbia Gas liable for the damages resulting from the explosion?
Similarities to San Bruno, California Gas Explosions
This year alone, there have been 42 significant incidents involving gas distribution lines in the United States, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Though there have been hundreds of gas explosions over the last decade, none was as tragic as the Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) explosions of 2010 in San Bruno, California, which killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes. In that disaster, PG&E accepted liability a year later, just days prior to the case going to trial, after Federal officials declared that a faulty pipe, flawed operations and inadequate government oversight led to the natural gas explosion.
The company was ultimately convicted of six felony charges, and sentenced to a $3 million fine, a five-year probation period, independent safety monitoring,10,000 hours of community service, and multiple advertising campaigns admitting guilt and promising to do better. In September 2013, PG&E settled damages with the 501 victims, which amounted to $565 million. In April 2015, the state Public Utilities Commission imposed a $1.6 billion penalty on PG&E for causing the San Bruno explosion.
In April 2018, the utility regulators fined the company an additional $97.5 million over improper back-channel communications with their own agency following a deadly natural gas pipeline explosion. One would think that would have been enough to convince PG&E to go above and beyond to provide a safe environment for its clients. But alas, it is knee deep in lawsuits from the 2018 Northern California wildfires for which is was responsible, to the tune of about $2.5 billion, far beyond the $840 million it carries in insurance.
Columbia Gas Has Unclean Hands
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has already announced they are investigating Columbia Gas for these fires. Unfortunately for the company, this isn't the first gas explosion for which they have been responsible. There have been three others in Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Ohio. Also, another natural gas leak of a Columbia Gas pipeline was discovered in the Boston area just two days after the explosions in nearby towns. In addition, Columbia Gas pipes around the area of the explosions had recently been over-pressurized, according to the NTSB. Columbia Gas may very well be headed down the same legal path PG&E found itself in a few years ago.
If you have been injured in a disaster, whether natural or man-made, you may be entitled to compensation. Consult an experienced local personal injury attorney, who can listen to the facts of your case, and inform you if you have a legal case for damages, or if a class-action has been started on your claim. Help may be just a phone call away.