On September 13, 2018, the calm of a late-summer suburban night turned to chaos as natural gas explosions ripped through Andover and North Andover and the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts. A Lawrence teenager, Leonel Rondon, who had just received his driver’s license, was killed as he sat in his car when a chimney collapsed from a house explosion. Another 25 people suffered injuries as police and firefighters from across eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire raced to the Merrimack Valley to fight more than 60 fires and explosions.
The attorneys at Sheff & Cook resolved the extraordinary case (PDF) against Columbia Gas Company for the wrongful death of Leonel, and its outcome had a substantial impact on the Rondon family, the residents of the Merrimack Valley area, the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and indeed the entire nation.
Senior Partner Doug Sheff served on the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee in the Consolidated Litigation against Columbia Gas and its efforts assisted the group in reaching a global settlement with Columbia Gas for all residents impacted by the disaster.
Columbia Gas has since made multiple changes in their operations and procedures, designed to make the region’s gas supply safer for all. Columbia Gas has laid more than 43 miles of new pipeline, installed more than 5,000 new service lines and performed more than 11,000 inspections. It has replaced more than 18,000 appliances in the service area. Multiple shut-off valves have been installed and meter and safety monitoring teams have been re-instituted.
Columbia Gas also agreed to reimburse the impacted cities and towns for the damages and expenses incurred in dealing with this disaster.
Finally, Columbia Gas announced the addition of a former National Transportation Safety Board Chair to the Board of Directors of NiSource (the parent company of Columbia Gas) and the appointment of a new president of Columbia Gas, who has re-dedicated the company to a “safety first” culture.
On September 13, 2019, one year after the tragedy, a square in Lawrence was dedicated in the memory of Leonel Rondon. Both Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and Governor Charlie Baker spoke at the emotional event. Leonel A. Rondon Square is located in a greenway near the Rondon family home.
Sheff & Cook then established the Leonel Rondon Memorial Award for Fire and Explosion Prevention (PDF) to encourage fire and explosion prevention and public safety, and will continue to work with the Rondon family to maintain a safe environment for all of us and our loved ones. It also worked with Columbia Gas to create a substantial endowment to Leonel Rondon’s high school to fund an “art therapy” room to help students cope with grief, stress, and anxiety and promote healing.
Our firm played a prominent role in the federal government’s investigation of the Merrimack Valley gas explosions. Its clients testified before the U.S. Senate Committee investigating the events. Doug Sheff worked with Congress, including Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Lori Trahan, who introduced a new national pipeline safety bill, the Leonel Rondon Pipeline Safety Act (PDF).
The legislation, co-sponsored by Senator Ed Markey, aims to close a legal loophole that restricts PHMSA from applying updated regulations to pipelines that are already installed. The law would also prohibit the release of gas or hazardous liquids from any pipeline.
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