The Hartford Courant
Confusion over insurance coverage has delayed — but not dashed — mediation efforts in the Kleen Energy explosion case.
Six workers were killed and several dozen injured in the Feb. 7, 2010, natural-gas explosion at the Middletown power plant. Lawyers for the plant operators and the victims had agreed to try to settle the slew of cases, with Superior Court Judge Robert L. Holzberg serving as mediator.
The undertaking — on a scale not seen since the settlements of the priest sexual-abuse cases in 2005 — was to start last week. But a lack of agreement over insurance coverage — how the insurance companies would divvy up the responsibility, and how the companies would line up in terms of financial exposure — caused the suspension of the mediation effort.
“It’s complicated how the insurance coverage applies in these cases,” said attorney James Bartolini of Hartford, whose firm, RisCassi & Davis, represents the families of two of the men who died in the blast — Chris Walters, 48, of Florissant, Mo., and Kenneth Haskell, 37, of New Durham, N.H.
“Judge Holzberg is now working with the insurance companies to get this sorted out. We hope we get back on track for mediation in September. That is our belief and hope,” Bartolini said.
Lawyers in this case have compared the scale of the mediation effort to the mass settlement fashioned after the L’Ambiance Plaza apartment-building collapse in Bridgeport in April 1987, in which 28 people died.
Forty-four L’Ambiance Plaza cases were grouped and settled for $41 million.
In the Kleen Energy case, at least 29 lawsuits involving more than 60 clients have been filed in state Superior Court. Two federal lawsuits have also been filed; they would not be part of the state mediation effort.
In addition to Haskell and Walters, those killed in the blast were Raymond Dobratz, 58, of Old Saybrook; Peter Chepulis, 48, of Thomaston; Ronald J. Crabb, 42, of Colchester; and Roy Rushton, 36, of Hamilton, Ontario.
O&G Industries of Torrington, the general contractor and minority owner of the $1 billion power plant, has denied any wrongdoing.
The plant’s majority owner is Energy Investors Funds, or EIF, through a Connecticut corporation called Kleen Energy Systems LLC. EIF is based in Boston and San Francisco.
Federal work-safety regulators issued more than $16 million in fines and identified more than 100 violations at the plant, which was 95 percent complete when the explosion occurred.
At the time of the blast, gas was being forced through pipes at a tremendous pressure to clean out debris, a process known as “gas blows.” The explosion, heard for more than 40 miles around, led to a statewide ban on gas blows, and a call from federal safety experts to prohibit the procedure nationally. A national ban has yet to happen, however.
The pipe used to vent the natural gas was positioned horizontally instead of vertically, directing the gas into a confined area behind the plant, where any number of ignition sources, including heaters and welders’ torches, could have ignited the pent-up gas, according to the lawsuits.
A rebuilt Kleen Energy plant opened for business earlier this month.