On October 25, a Boston law firm announced their plan to sue Columbia Gas for the death of a teenger during the fires and explosions that rocked the Merrimack Valley in September. The Sheff Law firm will represent the estate of Leonel Rondon, an 18-year-old Lawrence high schooler who was crushed by debris when visiting a friend’s house. The house exploded, and the chimney fell onto Rondon’s car. Rondon had just earned his driver’s license the day before.
Attorney Douglas Sheff believes the case will provide evidence that shows Columbia Gas has a history of negligence. He noted that in 2005 Columbia Gas received warnings about the system’s corroded and defective state, and that the company also has a history of 15 gas explosions since 2010.
Sheff didn’t provide many details on what results he expects from the wrongful death lawsuit or whether he hopes to affect changes to state laws or infrastructure. He said that a settlement would be an option on the table, but emphasized the family isn’t just seeking damages but justice for the community.
“This family wants justice. This family wants to find meaning in such a senseless death. And this family stands with the community,” Sheff said. “So many have lost so much in that community, and the family is committed to seeing such a tragedy never happens again, either in Lawrence or anywhere else.”
Sheff added that a wrongful death lawsuit can seek an award high enough to “punish” Columbia Gas. As of publication, the lawsuit has not been filed, nor has the amount the family is seeking been disclosed.
Sheff described the teen as a young man who loved to cook, enjoyed learning, especially math and biology, and was a supportive neighbor and family member. Rondon’s family was not at the conference, but Sheff said they will make future appearances as the case moves forward.
Gas fires and explosions erupted in the Merrimack Valley due to over-pressurized pipelines, some of which were over 100 years old. An estimated 8,600 families were displaced in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover for roughly three days. Most were able to return home, but have been without gas service since then. Columbia Gas was supposed to have all customers back online in November, but that deadline has been pushed back to December. According to the Boston Globe, while the old pipelines have been replaced, the company has only returned service to just over 1,400 customers.
Columbia Gas had set up reimbursement centers for customers and citizens affected by the crisis. However, the utilitty’s parent company, NiSource, has filed paperwork hinting that it may increase rates for customers.
A spokesperson for Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera said the mayor would not comment on the upcoming lawsuit. However, Rivera did voice his opposition to a class-action lawsuit filed by Morgan & Morgan. Rivera was an early critic of the Columbia Gas, which failed to communicate with customers and officials on the first night of the explosions, but has since voiced support for their efforts to help fix the problem.
In a statement to Spare Change News, a spokesperson for Columbia Gas said, “We are not commenting on the litigation. We do want to say that our hearts go out to the Rondon family. This was a tragic incident and we recognize how devastating and heartbreaking this loss is to the family and everyone in the community.”
A second family, from North Andover, has also filed a wrongful death suit against Columbia Gas. Kenneth DeVeau, 57, died of a heart attack during the evacuation of Merrimack Valley residents.
Rondon is survived by his mother, father, brother, sister, and aunt.