Four lawsuits were filed last week in North Carolina for four victims of a massive natural gas explosion in downtown Durham that killed two people and injured dozens more last year.

The lawsuits, filed June 22 in Durham County Superior Court, blame eight companies for the gas explosion that rocked Durham on April 10, 2019. The blast destroyed the Kaffeinate coffee shop and killed its owner Kong Lee, an American citizen originally from South Korea.

Jay Rambeaut, a PSNC Energy worker who responded to reports of the gas leak, died of his injuries two weeks after the explosion.

The Durham Fire Department investigated the explosion and found that a contractor installing underground cables struck and severed an underground gas line five feet in front of the Kaffeinate coffee shop’s front doors.

The broken line continued to spew gas for about an hour, with a high concentration of it accumulating inside the coffee shop. Investigators found no evidence that anybody on the contractor’s crew called 911 to report the accident. They also found that nobody involved in the project called 811, the national call-before-you-dig number, as required by law before any digging and excavation work begins.

The family of Mr. Lee filed one of the lawsuits. The other complaints were filed for three of those injured in the blast: Katrics Edwards, who was walking to Kaffeinate when the explosion occurred; Richard Meyer, a shuttle bus driver who was pulling up near the front of the coffee shop at the time; and Jasper Poole, who was delivering flowers at the time.

“A cascade of errors”

A lawyer representing the plaintiffs described the natural gas explosion as a tragedy that “was caused by a cascade of errors.”

“The gas line would not have been ruptured if standard safety protocols were followed by all the contractors involved in the planning and execution of a major underground cable installation project in downtown Durham,” the lawyer said, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

North Carolina’s Department of Labor cited contractor Optic Cable for two serious safety violations for its failure to call 811 before the dig and 911 after the explosion. Each penalty carries a fine of just $7,000.

The agency also cited PSNC Energy, doing business as Dominion Energy North Carolina, for one serious violation with a penalty of $5,000, and PS Splicing for one serious violation with a penalty of $2,100.

“Negligent, reckless, and willful and wanton”

The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of damages from the defendants. They contend that the companies supervising the work failed to properly train their workers, failed to follow proper protocol for locating and digging around utilities, failed to communicate the urgency of the situation to responders, and misled people in the area about the gas leak, according to the News & Observer.

The lawsuits allege, among other things, that Tower Engineering, Crown Castle and PS Splicing supervisors overseeing the work knew that “Optic Cable workers were not capable of safely or correctly conducting drilling operations without close supervision,” according to the News & Observer.

Tower Engineering and Crown Castle also “pressured those conducting the drilling and installation operations to speed up their work,” sacrificing safety for speed, the lawsuits allege.

Lawyers at Beasley Allen work on similar cases where people are suffer serious injuries or are killed through the negligence of others. If you have a claim involving serious injuries, contact us and a lawyer in our Personal Injury & Products Liability section will be happy to talk with you.

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