Legal Moves Delay Snow Hill Explosion Civil Trial

SNOW HILL – The saga of the $10.6 million civil suit filed by the Injured Workers Insurance Fund (IWIF) and a group of injured firefighters when a gas leak caused a house to explode dragged on this week as the 10-day trial was postponed again.

Thirteen Snow Hill volunteer firefighters injured in the Labor Day 2002 home explosion, along with IWIF, filed the civil suit against Eastern Shore Gas in 2005, alleging the company’s negligence caused the explosion that put them in harm’s way. Also named as plaintiffs in the case are six spouses of the injured firefighters because of personal and economic damages sustained by their husbands, bringing the total number of plaintiffs list in the multi-million dollar suit to 20. IWIF is included as a plaintiff because the insurer has been paying and will continue to pay benefits to the 13 injured firefighters and their families.

The case was first heard in Worcester County Circuit Court in December 2006 when the judge granted an Eastern Shore Gas motion for summary judgment, essentially ruling on the side of the defendants. IWIF and the Snow Hill firefighters then appealed the lower court’s decision to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals about a month after the motion for summary judgment was granted at the Circuit Court level.

Last October, the Court of Special Appeals issued a mandate in the case, neither affirming or reversing the Circuit Court’s ruling, but remanding the case back to the lower court for further trial. After months of legal wrangling on both sides, the case was laid in for a 10-day trial in Circuit Court that was supposed to begin on Monday, but a last-minute flurry of motions filed by both sides forced the postponement of the trial again and it has not been rescheduled as the court wades through the bevy of pre-trial motions.

A single-family home on Bay Street in Snow Hill exploded shortly after 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 1, 2002, killing Eastern Shore Gas employee Ignatius Daniel Saienni and injuring 17, including 13 Snow Hill firefighters and four civilians. Saienni had responded to the home in his capacity as a maintenance technician for Eastern Shore Gas when 87-year-old resident Sadie Dryden reported the strong odor of propane in her home.

The Snow Hill Volunteer Fire Department responded en masse to the scene of the reported gas leak and was participating in the investigation of its source when the house suddenly exploded. The 13 firefighters injured in the blast were initially transported to PRMC in Salisbury with a wide variety of injuries. Six of the firefighters were eventually transported to the Johns Hopkins Bayview Burn Center in Baltimore where they remained for several days, and even weeks in some cases, because of the severity of their injuries.

Three of the firefighters were listed in critical condition and required extensive surgeries and rehabilitations from the injuries they sustained. The firefighters’ injuries included first-, second- and third-degree burns, hearing loss, eye damage, a fractured spine and disfigurement. One firefighter, who never returned to the department, had 14 surgeries following the explosion and now requires hearing aids in both ears, according to the original complaint.

Several local, state and federal agencies immediately began an investigation into the blast, which shook houses several blocks away and broke windows in neighboring homes. Investigators believed at the time the initial leak was caused by the excessive amount of rainfall that fell on the region that Labor Day weekend. Snow Hill received about 12 inches of rain in the eight-hour period preceding the explosion, which flooded low-lying areas and may have disrupted underground gas lines.

Eastern Shore Gas reportedly shut down the gas main supplying the area to prevent further problems, but the damage had likely already been done. Propane gas reportedly leaked into the basement of the home unchecked until the homeowner reported the strong odor of gas to Snow Hill Emergency Services.

ESG officials and the Snow Hill VFD were in the process of dissipating the gas fumes in the basement using large industrial fans when an undetermined source ignited the flames and touched off the blast. A source at the time said a spark from the industrial fans likely set off the explosion.

The suit first filed in September 2005 cited negligence on behalf of ESG for a variety of reasons. For example, Saienni, who was already in the area investigating other reported leaks, responded but may not have taken the necessary readings and did not tell firefighters to leave.

“On the date of the incident, Eastern Shore Gas had the time, knowledge and opportunity to evaluate the scene, to warn the plaintiffs of the pre-existing, enhanced and hidden dangers of which Eastern Shore Gas was aware, and to take all reasonable measures to protect those in the zone of danger,” the original complaint reads.

The complaint goes on to suggest the deteriorated condition of ESG’s network of gas lines underground in Snow Hill was known to the company long before the fateful explosion in September 2002. It is undisputed that there were leaks in the pipes prior to the explosion and that the system, which was installed prior to 1960, did not have basic protection against corrosion. In fact, an ESG emergency procedure manual dating back to 1999 said the company intended to replace the entire system with polyethylene materials but the work was never done. The Public Service Commission has since ordered the company to make the necessary replacements by 2018, according to the complaint.

Now, nearly four years after the complaint was first filed in Worcester County Circuit Court, it has come full circle to return to where it started. One of the key elements of the case ruled on by a judge in the days leading up to the new trial was a motion to bifurcate liability from damages. Essentially, the defendants asked the court to separate the question of liability from the issue of damages in the interest of expediting the trial. The judge ruled favorably on the defense’s motion to bifurcate the liability portion of the case from the damages portion.

Other pre-trial activities include a motion to preclude from evidence a statement by Saienni prior to the incident related to the inspection of the pipe system, a motion to preclude the admission of graphic burn photos of the victims, a motion to limit the number of witnesses the plaintiffs may call at trial and a motion to exclude post-incident newspaper articles.