Lawyers for the victims of a natural gas explosion and fire at an apartment complex in Silver Spring, Md., filed two lawsuits against Washington Gas Light Co. and apartment management company Kay Management. Seven people died as a result of the Aug. 10 disaster, including two children. At least 25 people were injured and about 150 were displaced.
The lawsuits, filed on Nov. 2 in Superior Court of the District of Columbia, place the responsibility for the explosion and fire on Washington Gas, as the entity responsible for the natural gas lines that delivered gas to the apartment complex, and Kay Management, as the entity responsible for maintaining the gas lines inside the apartment complex that exploded that night.
“We truly believe that Washington Gas and Kay Management are responsible for these seven deaths and many people who have been injured,” CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres said at a Nov. 2 press conference in front of the Washington, DC, headquarters of WGL Holdings, the parent company of Washington Gas.
CASA, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income workers and tenants, partnered with two law firms — Bailey & Glasser LLP and Gupta Wessler PLLC — to conduct an independent investigation into the natural gas-fueled explosion and fire at the Flower Branch Apartments complex and file the lawsuits on behalf of the apartments residents.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), two federal agencies that have investigated the explosion and fire, have not released any information on the investigation. The agencies have denied CASA and the law firms access to “crucial evidence in our ongoing inquiry,” Torres said. “If this happened in a rich neighborhood, we would have an answer immediately. But because these families live in a poor neighborhood, we still don’t receive any answer,” he added.
Washington Gas said its participation in the ongoing NTSB investigation precludes it from making any public statements about the inquiry or the explosion and fire at the Flower Branch Apartments. The company expressed its “deepest and sincerest condolences” to the residents affected by the disaster. But Washington Gas said it cannot at this time comment on the litigation related to the incident.
In a statement in response to the Nov. 2 press conference organized by CASA, Kay Management said it met with residents of the two affected buildings within days of the natural gas explosion to answer questions and to provide details on company-provided assistance packages. “We are continuing to work with CASA’s attorneys to coordinate a second meeting under mutually agreed-upon terms with any resident,” Kay Management said.
Of the 23 apartments that are no longer habitable, all leaseholders and their authorized occupants have secured housing, Kay Management said. “We are committed to work with government agencies to resolve the ongoing investigation as quickly as possible,” the management company added.
Plaintiffs Seek Damages and Justice
The first lawsuit seeks damages for personal injury and wrongful death for the families of those killed by the explosion and fire and for those residents who sustained physical injuries. About 30 people are represented in this lawsuit. The second lawsuit, a class action complaint, seeks justice for all of the residents of Flower Branch who were affected by the explosion, including the families who lost their homes and their life savings. About 75 households at the Flower Branch apartment complex are members of the class.
In the wrongful death lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking economic and non-economic damages, including for physical pain and mental anguish suffered in the past and future, medical and other expenses incurred in the past and future, lost earnings in the past and reduction in earning capacity in the future, and loss of use of personal property.
In the class action lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking damages for being rendered homeless and displaced, harm to personal property, loss of use of personal property, loss of use of household goods or wearing apparel, loss of the benefit of leasehold interests, lost wages, and additional expenses. The plaintiffs also are seeking injunctive and equitable relief designed to prevent similar tragedies in the future, both at the Flower Branch Apartments complex and at other locations serviced by Washington Gas or Kay Management.
“The broader purpose of this legal action is improved safety for the area’s gas customers. We want safety reforms at Washington Gas and Kay Management and help ensure the nightmare at Flower Branch does not happen to other homes in Maryland or the District of Columbia,” John Barrett, an attorney with Charleston, W.Va.-headquartered Bailey & Glasser, said at the press conference. “They must improve their equipment and the processes by which they maintain their lines and respond to customer warnings about gas leaks.”
Based on preliminary findings, investigators and building management blamed a natural gas leak in a basement utility room. The NTSB took over the investigation into the causes of the disaster and is expected to issue a final report within 12 months of the August incident. An NTSB spokesman said the apartment explosion and fire are still under investigation. He also said the agency could not comment on the lawsuits brought against Washington Gas and Kay Management.
Attorneys Claim Negligence, Lack of Communication
The claims in the lawsuits primarily relate to alleged negligence by Washington Gas and Kay Management with respect to maintaining the gas lines and responding to complaints about gas odors. Local residents said the smell of natural gas was commonplace in the Flower Branch Apartments, and some accused the apartment complex managers of ignoring their gas leak complaints.
“Less than three weeks before the explosion and fire, residents had reported the smell of natural gas, but the Defendants – Washington Gas Light Company, which supplied natural gas to the complex, and Kay Management Company, which managed the complex — failed to take any action to address the complaints,” the plaintiffs stated in the wrongful death lawsuit. “They did not repair the gas leak, did not make an appropriate inspection that would have identified a leak, and did not warn or evacuate residents. Defendants also failed to perform routine inspections that would have uncovered the potential for catastrophe and saved the lives and property of the residents.”
Kay Management communicated with residents of the Flower Branch Apartments soon after the disaster because of the challenges facing the displaced residents. But since then, residents and their advocates have struggled to get additional answers from the management company, according to CASA. Washington Gas has refused to communicate with CASA and the plaintiffs’ attorneys about the Aug. 10 incident, Torres said.
“They’ve delayed and danced around our demands long enough. The victims and families are tired of waiting and we have been as patient as good conscience permits,” Barrett said. “The lawsuits we filed today give us the tools to get answers.”
Maria Escobar and her husband and three-year-old daughter attended the press conference, as did more than two dozen other residents of the Flower Branch Apartments complex. On the night of the explosion, Escobar and her family fled their apartment barefoot and lost everything in the fire. They are now living with family in the region. Another Flower Branch resident, Sara Yac, moved with her family to a different apartment at the complex after her apartment was destroyed in the explosion and fire. She is part of the class action lawsuit.
Bailey & Glasser also has represented communities impacted by disasters in West Virginia’s coal mining regions. “Those cases are very similar. We filed a number of lawsuits on behalf of entire towns and communities in southern West Virginia who were affected by coal mining and by coal mining disasters — losing their water, being subjected to a daily onslaught of dust and noise associated with coal preparation plants,” Barrett said. “This is very similar. The injuries that were involved in those cases don’t rise to the level that these families have experienced, but we are thrilled to be working with CASA. We are thrilled to be working with these families.”
Low-income residents throughout the Washington metropolitan area are subjected to “inhumane and dangerous” conditions, CASA said in a Nov. 2 news release. “In this case, the persistent conditions led to death and displacement. The truth is these conditions would never have been allowed to persist in more affluent communities,” the group contended.