SNOW HILL – The $10.6 million civil suit filed by the Injured Workers Insurance Fund (IWIF) and 13 Snow Hill firefighters injured when a gas leak during torrential flooding in September 2002 caused a house to explode is staying put in Worcester after a Circuit Court judge last week denied a motion filed by the defense to move the trial out of the county.
Thirteen Snow Hill volunteer firefighters injured in the Labor Day 2002 home explosion, along with the Injured Workers Insurance Fund (IWIF) filed the combined $10.6 million 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, included 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 and in December 2006, a Circuit Court 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, the defendant, ESG, in late November filed a motion to remove the case, essentially seeking a change of venue. However, Worcester Circuit Court Judge Theodore Eschenberg last week denied the motion to remove the case, keeping it in the county.
Eastern Shore Gas attorneys cited a variety of reasons for seeking the change of venue, not the least of which was the amount of press coverage of the incident starting with the coverage of the explosion in September 2002 and continuing as the civil suit moved from the Circuit Court level to the appeals court and back again. The defense also pointed out the perceived knowledge of the case in the community and the familiarity of a potential juror pool with the victims.
“If this case remains in Worcester County, there is no way for the Eastern Shore to ascertain who among the prospective panel knows about the subsequent investigation that revealed additional leaks, or remembers those media reports, without disclosing that very thing, and thereby prejudicing itself,” the motion to move to case from Worcester County reads.
However, Eastern Shore Gas attorney Leslie Russo said this week while the incident did generate a significant amount of publicity in the days and weeks following the explosion, there has been, with few exceptions, little media coverage of the various proceedings at different levels as the case has evolved.
“Frankly, with a few exceptions, most of the press coverage of the incident is fairly old and dates back to the time immediately after the incident and most of it covered the Eastern Shore Gas aspects of the case because the coverage came before the litigation,” said Russo this week. “They’ve had over five years to make an argument about extensive press coverage in an effort to get this case moved out of Worcester.”
Russo said the defense motion for a change of venue goes beyond the media coverage argument and also included an assertion many in the community are familiar with the case and the plaintiffs.
“The press coverage of the incident was only one small part of their attempt to get the venue changed,” she said. “They also argued many of the plaintiffs live and work in Worcester, which is another reason why the moved for the change of venue.”
With the motion for a change of venue denied, there is still much to be done before the case is scheduled to begin in mid-January. The plaintiffs have filed several other motions over the last few weeks on which the judge has approved some and denied others. Russo said this week there is still a considerable number of motions yet to be ruled on and she expects more to come, including a likely renewal of the effort to have the case removed from Worcester County.
“Eastern Shore Gas historically waits until the last minute,” she said. “We have 40 depositions scheduled between now and Christmas, and it seems they are doing the bulk of their discovery at the end. We anticipate another motion to have the case removed, but this case has been up to the appellate court and back, so we don’t expect any last minute changes.”
The single-family home in Snow Hill exploded in September 2002, killing Eastern Shore Gas employee Ignatius Daniel Saienni and injuring 17 including 13 Snow Hill firefighters. The Snow Hill Volunteer Fire Department had 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.