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Homeowners Can Recover for Seeing Their Home Explode

Posted November 16, 2018

[Editor’s Note: It was impossible not to be moved and shaken by the television footage of the gas explosions on September 13 in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.  In our latest blog post, Law Clerk Abbie Rosen, explains how in the 1990’s, Massachusetts highest Court decided that plaintiffs could recover for their emotional distress from seeing their homes destroyed in a gas explosion.  Jon Karon]

By Abbie Rosen

Normally, gas leaks, fires, and explosions are dangerous and concerning, but they aren’t likely to be at the top of your list of fears. Unfortunately, this past September the nightmare became a reality for many people living north of Boston as somewhere between 60 and 100 homes were damaged by gas fires in one evening, causing whole communities to be evacuated.

According to an article in today’s Boston Globe, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the plans made by Columbia Gas to work on the lines didn’t call for deactivating a sensor in a line that was shut off. When the line was shut off the sensor detected a loss of gas pressure which caused the system to pump a dangerous amount of gas into the system.  There was a single engineer in charge of the plans, and they were not reviewed by any of the other engineers. Moreover, according to that same Globe article, Columbia Gas previously dis-continued its practice of having a field technician onsite monitoring any work that involved depressurizing gas lines.  The NTSB said that an on-site technician could have acted “to prevent over-pressurization.”

Some of the damages of a disaster like this are immediate and obvious: property damage, physical injuries, (sadly, in at least one instance, death) and the cost of being temporarily relocated. What you may not know is that under Massachusetts law, emotional distress from seeing your home destroyed may also be compensable.

In 1993, the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided Sullivan v. Boston Gas Co, a case where homeowners brought an action against their gas provider for negligently causing their home to explode. Along with their claims for property damage and other expenses, they made claims for emotional distress from witnessing the explosion from across the street. One plaintiff developed tension headaches that interfered with his life, the other was diagnosed with PTSD. The Court found that their physical symptoms and the nature of the event (the gas explosion) provided enough objective evidence of the genuineness of their emotional distress claims to allow them to be presented to a jury.  Moreover, the Court specifically noted that both plaintiffs “witnessed the destruction of their home, an occurrence which the American Psychiatric Association lists as one of the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorders.”

While the immediate emergency has passed, the effects continue. A recent Masslive article reported that more than 7,500 people are still in temporary housing, and gas is not likely to be returned to everyone until some time in December. It might be a significant amount of time before people are back in their homes,  with power and gas restored.  For some, the emotional and psychological harms may take much longer to heal.



Boston Globe:

Sullivan v. Boston Gas Company, 414 Mass. 129 (1993)

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