Gas disaster lawyers contest reduced fees

File photoA utility worker compacts around a new gas line installed on Locke Street in Andover as repairs happen after the gas disaster.

Attorneys involved in the $143 million Merrimack Valley gas disaster settlement want another opportunity to address the presiding judge, in part concerning their proposed payment of $28 million in legal fees and expenses.

Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, a vocal opponent of that payment, has asked Judge James Lang to cut the $28 million by at least 75%.

By his estimate, Rivera said attorneys involved in the settlement are making $44,000 daily for their work since the gas disaster on Sept. 13, 2018.

"No one wants to deny them the money they are owed. But there is no way this should be a windfall for these attorneys," Rivera said last week.

He noted gas disaster victims went without heat, lived in temporarily trailers, and celebrated Thanksgiving Day in a public park — among other losses.

The four attorneys involved in the class action lawsuit, including lead attorney John Roddy of Bailey and Glasser LLP in Boston, filed a motion last Tuesday in Salem Superior Court asking if they could file a "7-page supplemental memorandum."

In the supplemental memorandum, the attorneys say they will "concisely address" issues brought up at the final settlement hearing, which happened the week before, including two very recent cases directly related to Rivera's request for a reduction to the legal fees.

It was unclear last week if the judge would accept the memorandum.

Rivera said if they are allowed to file, his attorneys will be filing a response.

"If they can do it, I will do it," Rivera said.

Neither Roddy nor a spokesperson for the class-action attorneys could be reached for comment for this story.

Two weeks ago, after some 4-1/2 hours of testimony, the judge took the matter under advisement and is expected to formally rule on the settlement, potentially paving the way for thousands of dollars of lump sum and itemized payments for gas disaster victims in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.

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

A total of 11,077 claims have been filed to date from residents and businesses in the three affected communities. That figure includes 10,432 residential claims and 645 claims from area businesses that suffered losses or went out of business altogether.

The claims, which encompass 35,000 people, ran the gamut — spoiled food, payments for lodging, property damage, and other losses and costs — according to final hearing testimony.

During the Sept. 13, 2018, gas disaster, caused by overpressurization of gas lines, Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence was killed, three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt, and damages estimated at $1 billion happened.

About 50,000 people were forced to evacuate and 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 deadline to file claims in the class action suit was stretched from Jan. 9 to Jan. 31 of this year. Extending that deadline resulted in about 5,000 additional claims being filed, said class action attorney Leo Boyle during the hearing.

The final hearing on the $143 million settlement came a day 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 that same day.

Rivera spoke as a resident, father and husband during the final hearing. A part of the "affected class," Rivera, his wife and their two young children had to evacuate their South Lawrence home during the disaster.

Immediately following the disaster, Rivera said he saw a “vulture culture” involving attorneys and felt it was important to warn residents and businesses about predatory practices.

"People hadn't even figured out what they lost and they were trying to get them to file. You can't reward that kind of behavior," Rivera said last week.

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

Their attorneys are in favor of the settlement and have encouraged the judge to approve it, according to previous statements.



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