After more than a month of testimony — and earlier developments — it’s becoming clearer which parties shoulder the most responsibility for the JJ’s restaurant explosion in February 2013.
A Jackson County jury today began deliberating in a civil suit in which restaurant owners Jimmy and David Frantze initially sued four companies for damages of $9.3 million, including the cost of the building, lost income and more than $1 million for wine that was stored in the basement.
When the trial began, as far as I can tell, there were four defendants: Time Warner Cable, which commissioned the installation of fiber-optic cables to serve the Plaza West buildings at 46th and Madison; Missouri Gas Energy; Heartland Midwest, which did the drilling that ruptured a gas line; and USIC Locating Services, which marked the location of underground utility lines.
To back up a bit…It’s been clear from Day One that Missouri Gas Energy employees dropped the ball by failing to cut the gas off to buildings in the area and failing to evacuate people from the restaurant. The Fire Department also screwed up mightily, first by failing to order people out and then by deferring to MGE and leaving the scene before the explosion…KCFD leaving the scene was one of the more galling aspects of this tragedy because it was ultimately responsible for public safety that day.
In March, MGE settled a complaint alleging that it failed to respond adequately, and it agreed to change some of its procedures and increase training. The Fire Department also changed its procedures; it is now supposed to arrive with gas monitoring equipment and remain on the scene until the risk is over.
And last summer, the family of 46-year-old waitress Megan Cramer, the only person who died in the explosion, quietly settled a wrongful-death suit against five defendants — the four named above, plus Southern Union Co., which either was or is MGE’s parent company.
Back to the trial at hand…As I said, four defendants were involved when the trial began in July. Along the way, as The Star’s stories indicate, the judge dismissed MGE and Heartland Midwest, leaving Time Warner and USIC Locating Services.
If the jury decides those two companies bear some responsibility, I presume the jury will decide how to apportion the damages. I don’t really understand how Time Warner can bear significant responsibility because all it did was commission the job and trust that it would be done right.
Much of the blame for the piercing of the gas line could fall, then, on USIC Locating. It provided the topical “map” that Heartland employees followed when they put their drills or backhoes in the ground.
At the outset of the trial, Steve Emerson, the Frantzes’ attorney, said an employee of USIC had “botched” the job and shouldn’t have been assigned in the first place because he had received several reprimands for poor performance in his evaluations. I don’t know if testimony supported that contention, but it would be interesting to know.
In addition, I don’t know if the jury has been made aware of the fact that Missouri Public Service Commission concluded a year after the incident that incorrect markings led the Heartland Crew to put its drill at the same depth as the gas line.
I am anxious to see what the jury comes back with. I don’t want to put too much blame on the employee who incorrectly marked the site because this tragedy is awash in blame. It’s good to know, however, that various lawsuits and investigations have — and still are — focusing responsibility.
And, finally, let’s not forget that this exhaustive effort to assign responsibility is much less about the value of lost wine, lost income and a blown-up building than it is about the death of a fine woman who should still be alive today.