Silver Spring Residents Prepare for Legal Fight as Natural Gas Odors Linger

Civil rights group CASA and residents of Flower Branch apartment complex announce plans on Sept. 7  to file lawsuit. (Source: CASA)

Residents at a Silver Spring, Md., apartment complex are still complaining about strong natural gas odors one month after a devastating explosion and fire killed seven of their neighbors and injured dozens more.

Since the Aug. 10 disaster, the Montgomery County, Md., Fire and Rescue has been called to the Flower Branch apartment complex, located on Piney Branch Road, numerous times in response to unusually strong natural gas odors.

The latest visit by the fire department to the apartment complex reportedly occurred later on the same day that CASA, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income workers and tenants, held a press conference announcing that it is partnering with two law firms — Bailey & Glasser LLP and Gupta Wessler PLLC — to conduct an independent investigation of the natural gas-fueled explosion and fire at the apartment complex.

After completion of the investigation, the group is likely to file a civil lawsuit on behalf of more than 80 residents of the apartment complex, including about a dozen tenants who were directly impacted by the explosion and fire. Along with the deaths and injuries, 84 families were displaced from their homes at Flower Branch. Given the persistent smell of natural gas and the memories of the disaster, CASA officials said many residents are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Especially for kids, they are having nightmares. They are thinking there’s going to be another explosion. Some tenants are still afraid to cook,” CASA spokeswoman Fernanda Durand said.

Based on preliminary findings, investigators and building management are blaming a natural gas leak in a basement utility room. The National Transportation Safety Board has taken over the investigation into the causes of the disaster and is expected to issue a final report within 12 months.

CASA does not believe the residents should have to wait as long as a year to find out if their apartment complex is safe. “We’re conducting an independent investigation. Out of the results of that is how we’re going to decide to hold them responsible for this,” Durand said of the planned lawsuit. “We should complete the investigation within two or three weeks.”

‘A Pattern of Intimidation’

After the Sept. 7 press conference announcing the lawsuit plans, a group of Flower Branch tenants and organizers walked to the apartment complex offices and delivered a petition signed by about 130 people. The group, known as the Flower Apartment Committee for Justice, Safety and Dignity, requested a meeting between the owners of the complex and all tenants of the Flower Branch complex. The tenants want to address a wide range of issues, including ending alleged mistreatment and harassment from apartment managers and security personnel and addressing the “deplorable conditions” at the apartment complex.

Residents march on management office at Flower Branch apartment complex on Sept. 7 to deliver petition seeking major improvements at complex. (Source: CASA)

“There’s been a pattern of intimidation from management, which goes back a long time, not just now. Security guards are using all types of intimation tactics. It takes people with a lot of courage to come forward,” Durand said.

In a Sept. 7 statement, Kay Apartment Communities, the managers of the complex, said it will reach out to the residents who signed the petition “so they know we are ready and willing to meet with them.” The management company also said it will continue to ask residents to report any safety concerns to its office and that the complaints will be immediately followed up on.

According to the petition, apartments that were evacuated during the fire and are now occupied have not been properly repaired, and other apartments have broken balcony railings and rotten floorboards. Evacuations due to natural gas leaks have continued to happen since the explosion, the petition reads.

“The smell of gas is around the buildings and management does nothing about. So the same problems that led to the explosion continue to happen,” Durand said. “The residents believe it wasn’t a one-off thing; there’s something wrong in the whole apartment complex.”

Kay Apartment Communities said it has met with the affected leaseholders and has been working to help them find new homes. “In less than 24 hours after the explosion, we began working collaboratively with CASA de Maryland and IMPACT Silver Spring to assist the residents, and on the night of Aug. 16, 2016 our management team met with the group for more than 2.5 hours at Clifton Park Baptist Church to answer resident questions directly, and to begin to distribute our relocation packages,” Kay Apartment Communities said in its statement.

Of the 24 apartments that are no longer habitable, all leaseholders and their authorized occupants have been contacted in an effort to secure other housing for them and provide financial assistance, Kay Apartment Communities said. Nineteen, or 79%, of those apartments’ leaseholders and authorized occupants have accepted other homes with Kay Apartment Communities, the company said.

Legal Battle Heats Up

Bailey & Glasser LLP attorney Cary Joshi speaks at Sept. 7 press conference announcing plans to conduct investigation and file lawsuit on behalf of Flower Branch tenants. (Source: CASA)

At the press conference, Bailey & Glasser attorney Cary Joshi said her law firm will “support the efforts of the community to bring about lasting, systemic changes that will ensure that what happened in Flower Branch never happens again.”

Bailey & Glasser plans to interview survivors, Kay Management and Washington Gas personnel as well as first responders. “As more people are interviewed, more leads will be developed, so this process does not have bookends,” the law firm said in an email.

While Bailey & Glasser will be leading the independent investigation, co-counsel Gupta Wessler will focus on the legal issues in the case and possible appeals. “This is the first time CASA has had a case of this kind,” Gupta Wessler founding principal Deepak Gupta said in an interview. “They don’t seek out cases like this. This case came to their doorstep.”

The lawsuit, once it is filed, will not depend on the official findings by the NTSB, which are not usually admitted as evidence in civil suits anyway, Bailey & Glasser said.

Charleston, W.Va.-headquartered Bailey & Glasser has represented other communities impacted by disasters, including serving as co-counsel in a jury trial that alleged a Massey Coal subsidiary had damaged or destroyed the wells and water supplies of residents of Mingo County, W.Va. The plaintiffs and their attorneys won a total cash recovery of $3.2 million, plus injunctive relief.

The firm also won a 2011 jury trial for 40 Huntington, W.Va., residents whose homes and properties were flooded by a municipal storm-water control system. The total recovery for the residents exceeded $1 million. When Huntington’s system again caused flood damages, Bailey & Glasser sued again in 2012, and, after another jury trial, obtained a second million-dollar judgment. In 2014, the firm won an appeal at the West Virginia Supreme Court when the court ruled that monetary damages awarded to homeowners but cut by the judge be restored.

This article was originally published on Energy Action News.