Posted on Jan 24, 2006
$17.2m settlement in gas explosion
Couple lost girls, 5 and 4, as blast leveled building
By Lisa Kocian and Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff | January 24, 2006
Saying they need to move on with their lives, Tara and Heath Carey, who lost two young daughters in a gas explosion in 2002, accepted a settlement of $17.2 million from NStar Gas Co. and others, in an agreement announced yesterday.
The $17.2 million appears to be a record amount for cases involving child deaths, according to David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, which tracks lawsuit settlements.
'It's been almost four years, and we need to come to some kind of closure," Tara Carey said yesterday, one day before the wrongful death case was to go to trial. In October 2002, the Careys sued NStar Gas Co., Inner-Tite Corp., and landlords Leonard and Anne-Marie Pearson in Middlesex Superior Court for the wrongful deaths of their daughters.
Around 1:40 a.m. on July 24, 2002, Heath and Tara Carey were sleeping in their second-floor apartment in Hopkinton next to their daughters, Violet, 5, and Iris, 4, when their building exploded. All four were buried in rubble.
In a deposition taken in March 2004, Tara Carey recalled hearing Violet scream, 'Mommy, I can't breathe," and said that she could reach out and touch Iris's head but that the little girl didn't move or make a sound. Heath Carey said in his deposition, given the same day, that he heard one of his daughters struggling to breathe before she fell silent.
The couple dug out of the collapsed house but couldn't reach the girls.
The source of the leak was never identified, but the Careys' lawyers said the explosion happened because gas company equipment was allowed to rust in the damp basement of the apartment house. A state investigation found in 2003 that NStar had violated federal regulations in its service to the house including allowing corrosion to build up on the gas system, and the state imposed a $200,000 fine, which NStar has appealed. The investigation did not blame anyone for the disaster, because the source of the leak could not be pinpointed.
NStar, which is paying $12.5 million of the settlement, denies any wrongdoing, citing a metallurgical study conducted by the state that said the rusted equipment was not responsible for the gas leak.
The other two defendants in the case were Inner-Tite Corp., the manufacturer of the equipment that rusted, and the property owners. Attorneys for those two parties did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Caroline Allen, an NStar spokeswoman, said that Inner-Tite will pay $4.5 million of the settlement and that the landlords will pay the remaining $175,000.
Tara Carey, who now lives in Buzzards Bay with her husband and two children -- Lexington and Azalea, born since the explosion -- said yesterday that she hoped her daughters' deaths would lead to safety improvements in natural gas systems in homes.
Allen said NStar could not make any specific changes in its practices as a result of the explosion because its cause remains unknown.
'NStar continues to place the highest priority on safety," she said. 'We are constantly reviewing and updating our safety practices and procedures to ensure the most effective guidelines are in place. Like all natural gas companies, we operate under rigorous federal and state safety laws."
NStar, which has 300,000 customers in the state, released a statement about the settlement yesterday.
'We were all touched by this terrible tragedy and our hearts go out to the Carey family," the statement said. 'This accident was particularly unusual because the property was destroyed after the incident, and so we will never fully know its cause. We felt it was important to step up and do what we could to bring closure for the Carey family and help them move on."
In addition to the Careys, eight other people lived in the yellow three-story house on Main Street, one door down from the fire station. No one else was seriously injured.
That night, Janet Webster and her three children woke up in their first-floor apartment to a deafening sound and within a few minutes smelled gas. They rushed out, got into her car, and drove across the street, where she dialed 911 on her cellphone. Moments later, the house exploded.
'I'm so happy for them," Webster said yesterday in reaction to the settlement. 'I'm sure there's no amount of money that would ever, ever begin to compare to what they lost, those two little girls, but I hope this . . . gives them some sense of justice."
She said she plans to file a lawsuit against the same three defendants for the loss of her family's possessions and the trauma they endured. Webster said she wanted to wait until the Carey matter was resolved because their loss was so 'horrific and beyond comparison to anything I had lost."
The settlement is one of the largest in any personal injury lawsuit in state history, according to lawyers who specialize in such claims.