$1 Million Settlement Over Death of Elderly Woman in Fire

Equitable Gas, Duquesne Light to pay for 1998 gas explosion

By Marissa N. Scarvel
Western Pa. Legal Intelligencer

In personal injury actions, the elderly do not typically receive high monetary awards.

But when Pittsburgh lawyer Neil Rosen of Rosen Louik & Perry was attempting to settle a case against Equitable Gas Co. and Duquesne Light Co., Rosen made it clear that he wouldn’t accept anything less than seven figures for the death of Ann Gaydos Palmer, 72.

“Death claims for older people tend to get lower amounts than they warrant,” Rosen said. “Lawyers settle for smaller sums of money. In this case, the negligence on the part of both entities bordered on outrageous.”

The case was settled for $1 million. As part of the settlement, the defense lawyers — P. Brennan Hart of the Pittsburgh office of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin for Duquesne Light and C. Leon Sherman of the Pittsburgh firm C. Leon Sherman & Associates for Equitable Gas — requested a confidentiality agreement that bars Rosen from speaking to the “general news media.” Although Rosenagreed to the provision, he reserved the right to discuss the case within the legal community as long as he does not identify the defendants.

However, because of the nature of the facts, it was obvious that the case involved the well-publicized gas explosion on Sept. 7, 1998, in which Palmer died in her two-story house in McKeesport.

Gas Explosion
According to reports, the explosion ignited a fire and leveled the home, where Palmer had lived since the late 1960s.

A report filed by the Fire Department said that after the explosion, Palmer was heard crying for help but that she could not be rescued.

Investigators concluded that a damaged gas line near the home caused the explosion. Duquesne Light workers broke the line, which had been mismarked by Equitable Gas. The result was a slow leak.

Rosen sued in 1999, claiming that negligence on the part of both companies caused the explosion, the fire and Palmer’s death. The suit claimed that in addition to Equitable responsibility for mismarking the line, Duquesne Light also was partially responsible because workers failed to notify Equitable that they had broken the line.

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach a settlement agreement in the case, the defense lawyers suggested mediation. Rosen said he initially declined because he did not believe the defendants were willing to pay at least $1 million. Talks began in the $700,000 range, he said.

Thomas Frampton of Pietragallo Bosick & Gordon in Pittsburgh served as the mediator. Frampton, a former judge on the Mercer County Court of Common Pleas, helped get the case settled by putting all the facts and issues on the table and facilitating the negotiations.

When the defendants did reach the $1 million mark, Rosen said, the plaintiff decided to settle.

“After we hung in there and got what we wanted, I thought it was in the best interest of all parties to settle,” Rosen said. “The decedent had two grown daughters who are successful in their own right. It was a gory case to have to try.”

As in any case, Rosen said, a jury trial could have gone either way.

“The decedent was a lovely lady who worked as a waitress her whole life and lived a modest and religious life,” Rosen said. “That fact that I had a fire report that said she was crying out for help showed obvious pain and suffering. The Fire Department was right next to the house, so we could only prove that the pain and suffering lasted 1 minute. She was older, with no income other than Social Security and no dependents. These cases are extraordinarily difficult to get big money.”

Even though Rosen questioned whether he could have secured as high a verdict had the case gone to trial, he said he was confident that he would have won a plaintiff’s verdict of some value.

“We had provable damages and third-party observers,” Rosen said. “There is shock value when a woman goes into her basement, flips a light switch, and has the house blow up. Any juror would realize it could happen to them or their parents or their grandparents. This was a terrible tragedy and a preventable one.”

Because of the confidentiality agreement, Rosen would not say how much of the settlement each defendant must pay.

The settlement was strictly for Palmer’s death. Rosen said a property claim for damage done to the house was settled with an insurance company, which may now make a claim against the defendants.

Criminal Charges
While Equitable has settled the civil suit against it, the utility still faces criminal charges arising out of the explosion.

The state Department of Labor and Industry filed a criminal complaint against Equitable last year, alleging improper marking of the area. According to the complaint, Equitable failed to mark the position of a natural gas service line within 18 inches, as required by law. Equitable marked the line at least 56 inches from its actual location, the complaint says. If convicted, the utility would be liable for at least $20,000 in fines and the cost of prosecution.
Date Received: July 11, 2001