OSHA Report Bolsters Gas Explosion Lawsuit

Explosion and fire investigators slapped maximum fines against two utility contractors that failed to mark an underground gas line on a digging project. The serious safety violations  cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) led to a massive explosion and fire last July in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

The blast killed Cory Barr, a local firefighter, whose family has since filed an explosion lawsuit. Lawyers filed at least one other explosion and burn lawsuit on behalf of two additional firefighters who were injured. Still others may be thinking about suing.

“These OSHA findings leave no doubt that negligence caused the explosion,’’ said attorney Eric Hageman, who represents explosion and burn victims. “Two companies responsible for safety ignored their responsibilities and in so doing created horrific danger.’’Explosion lawyers call on Congress for larger fines

OSHA said Bear Communications of Lawrence, Kansas, and subcontractor V C Tech Inc. of Ypsilanti, Michigan, failed to establish the location of underground utilities prior to the start of excavation work above a natural gas main in the business district of Sun Prairie, a suburb of Madison in Dane County. Both companies were fined the maximum penalty allowed  — $12,934.

Hageman, along with explosion lawyer Fred Pritzker, said Congress should substantially increase maximum fines against corporate violators of safety laws.

“A few thousand dollars is a pittance to corporate America,’’ Pritzker said. “It does nothing to hold them accountable.’’

Demanding Accountability

Mr. Pritzker and Mr. Hageman obtained a $45 million settlement for a man who survived extensive burns in a natural gas pipeline explosion. The case stands as their largest explosion recovery for a family, but they also have recovered millions of dollars for other families devastated by natural gas tragedies.

Explosion Lawyer Fred Pritzker

Explosion lawyer Fred Pritzker

“In every case our clients suffered terribly because pipeline and utility companies avoided rather than embraced safety protocols,’’ Pritzker said.

In the Sun Prairie explosion, the companies were working on the installation of Verizon Wireless fiber optic cable. Diggers who were not warned of the natural gas line punctured a four-inch main owned by We Energies, OSHA found. Emergency crews were dispatched to evacuate the area, then the leak erupted into a fireball that shot flames four stories tall. Two buildings were leveled in the blast.

The OSHA finding was announced January 10, 2019, in a Region 5 news release. Barr was a fire department captain who left behind a wife and young children. Nearly a dozen other people suffered non-fatal injuries, including a police officer and at least seven civilians.

OSHA inspectors said in their report that neither contractor bothered to contact the gas line owner or the local one-call Diggers Hotline system — a blatant safety violation. The negligence citations against the companies clearly state that they violated the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

Chad Greewood is OSHA’s Madison Office Area Director. He issued the following statement: “Excavators are required to train their employees on procedures for determining the location of underground utilities, and contact the utility company before opening an excavation.’’

In Texas and elsewhere around the country, politicians and non-profit safety activists keep working on gas pipeline safety reforms. The tragic consequences in the Wisconsin explosion and fire case could strengthen the reform movement by demonstrating the carelessness and disregard for safety inside the industry. Fines and penalties must be increased, but Texas Rep. Rafael Anchia is pushing for new disclosure legislation to keep the public informed of dangerous situations regarding gas leak before tragedy strikes.