In March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was emerging, the $143 million class action settlement for the Merrimack Valley gas disaster was approved.

Superior Court Judge James Lang signed off on the settlement, which was aimed at compensating victims for everything from lost property to emergency lodging, to spoiled food, mental hardship and more.

The settlement included lump-sump and itemized payments for gas disaster victims from Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

The average settlement payment to a family of four was estimated to be $8,750, Lang said.

Prior to the final court hearing on the settlement Feb. 27, a total of 11,077 claims had been filed. That figure includes 10,432 residential claims and 645 from area businesses that suffered losses or closed.

According to the decision, 56 percent of the claims came from Lawrence, followed by 23 percent from Andover and 19 percent from North Andover.

More than $24 million in the settlement was set aside for legal fees for the class action attorneys — payment that Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera spoke out against at the final settlement court hearing.

Rivera said each of the class action attorneys involved was making roughly $44,000 per day for their involvement in the suit, which amounted to payments much higher than any victim was receiving.

In late May, the first $70 million in settlement payments to gas disaster victims was mailed, about six weeks earlier than expected.

Class action attorneys asked for the payments to be fast-tracked due the COVID-19 pandemic which shut down parts of the economy.

Gas disaster payments were initially expected to start in July 2020.

A follow-up lump sum payment went out in June and checks for itemized personal and business claimants were scheduled for September, as those claims take much longer to review, the attorneys said.

During the disaster, caused by the overpressurization of gas lines operated by Columbia Gas, Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence, was killed, three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt, and damages are estimated at $1 billion.

About 50,000 people were forced to evacuate. The severity of the damage depended on the age of appliances people had. Five homes were destroyed and 131 properties damaged, according to findings by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The approval of the $143 million settlement came after Columbia Gas pleaded guilty to federal charges and agreed to pay a $53 million fine.

Competing utility Eversource Energy announced its $1.1 billion plan to buy the Massachusetts portion of the company in early 2020.

Columbia Gas officials have said they spent a billion dollars already on gas disaster recovery in the communities.

Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.

 

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