Insurers sue over cause of gas explosion Targets are contractor, cable company, trench digger

$1.2 million paid in claims

Gas main was struck in January

blast damaged 60 homes

October 11, 1995|By DARREN M. ALLEN | DARREN M. ALLEN,SUN STAFF

After paying out more than $1.2 million in claims to 40 homeowners in a Westminster neighborhood that was damaged a natural gas explosion last winter, 16 insurance companies ++ want their money back from those they say caused the blast.

The insurers of homes in Autumn Ridge filed a lawsuit in Carroll Circuit Court last week claiming that the Jan. 19 explosion -- which destroyed a vacant house and damaged more than 60 others -- was caused by negligence on the part of a Howard County company that was digging a trench for Prestige Cable Television of Maryland Inc.

In addition to Reid Oliver, the subcontractor who was digging the trench that morning, and Prestige, the suit names as a defendant Maryland Underground Inc., the contractor hired by Prestige to lay television cable. Maryland Underground, in turn, hired Mr. Oliver to dig the trench.

The explosion in the neighborhood north of Westminster threw debris more than a mile and rocked several homes off their foundations. It occurred hours after a 4-inch plastic natural gas main was struck. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which owns the main, was not named in the insurers' lawsuit.

A lawyer for Mr. Oliver had not seen the suit yesterday, but he said his client took all necessary precautions Jan. 19. "I maintain that he followed all of the procedures," attorney Leonard C. Redmond III said yesterday.

Neither officials of nor attorneys for Maryland Underground could be reached yesterday.

A lawyer for Prestige said the company would have no comment because it had not been served with the lawsuit. Shortly after the explosion, Prestige officials said that none of the cable company's employees was responsible for the blast.

George E. Reede Jr., a Baltimore lawyer who filed the suit Friday on behalf of the insurance companies, could not be reached.

The blast occurred after natural gas accumulated in the basement of a vacant house for almost two hours. That home was destroyed when a basement sump pump ignited the natural gas. In the explosion's wake, more than 20 families were left homeless for months.

The lawsuit said Mr. Oliver failed to dig a test hole near the properly marked gas main and that his failure was the reason the trench-digging machine pierced the plastic pipe.

"The defendants were fully aware of the danger created" by not digging such a hole or by monitoring the trench-digging machine, the suit said. They had "every opportunity to take the necessary precautions that would have prevented the explosion."

The lawsuit's claims are identical to the findings of a state Public Service Commission investigation. In its report several weeks after the blast, the PSC said the trenching company wasn't paying attention to marks on the street indicating where BGE's gas pipeline ran.

BGE, which responded to the scene an hour after Mr. Oliver notified them that a main had been struck, was not cited for any wrongdoing in the PSC report.

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