Thousands of people impacted by last year's fires and explosions in the Merrimack Valley are one step closer to compensation from Columbia Gas, after a judge on Friday gave preliminary approval to a proposed $143 million settlement in a class action case.
The decision by Superior Court Judge James Lang means Columbia Gas must begin mailing claim forms to about 175,000 residents and business owners who are eligible to collect payments. Anyone who lived or owned a business in Lawrence, Andover or North Andover on the day of the disaster is eligible.
The settlement is still subject to final approval at a hearing in February.
"Today represents a significant step forward in bringing the communities of Lawrence, Andover and North Andover the compensation they're entitled to in a timely manner," plaintiffs' lawyers Frank Petosa, John Roddy and Elizabeth Graham said in a joint statement.
We know many residents and business owners have questions about the settlement; we want them to know: we hear you. We want to provide a forum for community members to ask any questions they may have. To that end, we will be scheduling town hall meetings now that the terms of the settlement have been preliminarily approved — both in-person and online, in English and Spanish — to apprise people of their rights and the process for obtaining compensation as we move forward.
Columbia previously settled lawsuits with the three affected municipalities; the family of Leonel Rondon, who died in one of the explosions; and the family whose home was destroyed in that deadly blast. The company also has paid some customers for property damage.
The class-action settlement is designed to reach a broader population, including people who suffered "noneconomic losses" such as "emotional distress, disruption, inconvenience, loss of use and enjoyment of property and loss of goodwill," according to a filing by the plaintiffs' attorneys.
The Philadelphia-based Heffler Claims Group will manage the settlement fund. Legal and administrative fees will reduce the fund to about $115 million.
While individual payouts could be as much as $15,000, disruptions deemed "nominal" will be $50 or less, lawyers say.