A total of $26.1 million of the $143 million Merrimack Valley gas explosion class-action settlement was earmarked for payment of legal fees and administrative costs.
And yet, some victims are being asked to pay an 11% fee to get their checks, which are compensation for everything from spoiled food and property damage, to lodging costs, mental anguish and other fallout from the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster.
The first round of checks was recently issued with an average settlement payment of $8,000. Eleven percent of that payment is $880.
As of last Friday, a spokesperson for Attorney General Maura Healey said the office had heard from eight recipients about the fee being assessed by attorney David Raimondo of the Raimondo Law Firm. Healey’s office is looking into this.
On Friday, Raimondo stressed he is a private attorney and not a class-action attorney.
“I have never had a complaint against me in 30 years,” he said.
Raimondo said he requested a conference this week with Superior Court Judge James Lang, who approved the $143 million settlement, regarding his payment.
“I am seeking guidance from the court,” Raimondo said.
Disaster victim Kelley Medvecky of South Lawrence said she’s in the middle of this dispute.
She agrees Raimondo should get paid. But, she says, the money shouldn’t be coming out of her settlement check.
“It should come from the monies awarded to lawyers and not our rewards,” Medvecky said.
State Sen. Diana DiZoglio, D-Methuen, said she has been contacted by several residents whose settlement payments are being held up due “unexpected fees from claim amounts.”
“These fees appear listed as contingency fees but it is unclear to residents whether there was, in fact, actually a contingency fee agreement in place. In response, we reached out to the Attorney General on their behalf to determine the legality of this situation,” DiZoglio said in a statement to The Eagle-Tribune.
Attorneys involved in the class-action lawsuit asked for the first $70 million in payments to be mailed out in late May due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down parts of the economy. Payments were previously expected to start in July.
The gas disaster, caused by overpressurized gaslines operated by Columbia Gas, resulted in the death of Leonel Rondon, 18, of Lawrence. Three firefighters and 19 civilians were hurt, and damages in Andover, Lawrence and North Andover are estimated at $1 billion.
About 50,000 people were forced to evacuate. Five homes were destroyed and 131 properties damaged, according to findings by the National Transportation Safety Board.
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 ones 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.
Columbia Gas officials have said they spent a billion dollars already on gas disaster recovery in the communities.
The gas utility pleaded guilty to federal charges and also 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.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.