Ten months after the Sept. 13 gas disaster rocked the Merrimack Valley, killing one 18-year-old man from Lawrence and displacing thousands of others, lawyers reached a $143 million agreement this week to compensate residents and businesses for the disruption that was caused in their lives.
A statement released Monday by a Columbia Gas spokesperson reported the proposed class-action settlement will give money to those who suffered hardships in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover after the sudden blasts and fires caused by over-pressurized gas lines 10 months ago.
This week's settlement, which is subject to court approval, is separate from the money paid to the towns to cover infrastructure repairs and other expenses, the statement says, as well as from the individual claims involving personal injuries and wrongful death.
After its approval, residents and businesses will be able to submit claims, according to the statement.
John Roddy, an attorney from Bailey & Glasser, the firm representing the plaintiffs, said every impacted person is entitled to claim from the $143 million fund.
An allocation plan is being put in place to determine where the most damage was done in the three communities, Roddy said. The main goal of the settlement is that business owners who had their income streams most disturbed will get the largest measure of recovery.
"I think there are people whose claims may be very substantial, and there are others who are the furthest from the impacted zone who may not have very substantial claims," said Roddy. "They can submit a claim and will receive compensation no matter what."
Roddy said he hopes for a judge's approval to send a notice to everyone in the next couple weeks. From there, he said it normally takes 75 to 90 days from the time the notices go out to the time the court holds a final approval hearing.
If the settlement is determined fair and reasonable at the final approval hearing, Roddy said checks are estimated to go out within 35 to 40 days afterward, assuming no one appeals the decision and there are no delays.
"We feel that it's extremely fair," Roddy said of the money. "In a situation like this, I don't think it's ever possible to make someone 100% whole, but this is a step in the right direction."
“This settlement, reached in an unprecedented 10 months after the incident, will provide a full measure of compensation to thousands of residents and businesses in a transparent and expeditious manner, under rigorous judicial oversight," said plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel Frank Petosa of Morgan and Morgan.
The Columbia Gas-managed claims process, overseen by a court-supervised mediator, will continue until the court gives preliminary approval to the settlement.
Then an independent claims administrator will take over the process, the statement reports.
“The claims process will be simple, straightforward and tailored to correspond to the event’s impact on the claimant,” said co-liaison counsel Brad Henry of Meehan, Boyle, Black & Bogdanow.
Though the announcement leaves business owners hopeful, they are also left wondering how much money they will receive and if it will make up for the lost revenue they've endured.
Throughout the months that followed the gas disaster, businesses have filed claims, received new appliances, and opened their doors back up to customers. But as people and employees have started to slowly return to normalcy, one problem remains: Businesses are not getting clientele as they did before the disaster.
"I want to get my business back to normal, but it's just not," said John Ingalls, owner of Palmer's Restaurant in Andover.
Ingalls wasn't able to open his doors until nearly two months after the disaster. After the weeks crawled by and he finally propped open the door to welcome people back to tables and bar stools, he said business was booming.
But it didn't last.
"When we first got back and open it was great, but then it trickled off. There was great support in November and December, and we did very well. But since the beginning of the year it has been way off, and I think we are better than we've ever been. I mean that. We got better after it happened," Ingalls said.
As the spring and summer months arrived, the owner of the popular restaurant in the heart of downtown said a lot of once-loyal customers have not returned. And though he is back to operating his restaurant as he did prior to the disaster, there remains a big concern as business has been consistently off for the last four months.
Similar to Ingalls, Maria Lopez, owner of the South Broadway business Curiosity in Lawrence, said she learned of the $143 million settlement Monday morning when it was announced in the media.
"Nobody knows anything about it," she said, referring to other businesses in Lawrence that have been seeking assistance from both Columbia Gas and the city. "Nobody has any information about it."
Lopez said that prior to the gas disaster she was earning $1,000 to $1,400 a week. Now, she says she is lucky if she makes $500 a month.
Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera, who has been the most vocal community leader in his feelings toward Columbia Gas, said a settlement like this is good for the utility company, because it gets to close out all of the claims in the lawsuit.
"The question is: After the attorneys take their cut, how much are residents and businesses really left with? My hope is that the people and businesses in these class-action lawsuits are truly being made whole and not being victimized yet again," he said.