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May 15, 2012 8:33 am

Couple settles with gas company in home explosion case

Written by CJ Baker

A couple has settled a lawsuit against their gas company over the 2006 explosion of their Powell home.
Former Powell residents Jared and Lynne Collins alleged in a February 2010 lawsuit that Montana Dakota Utilities personnel had negligently failed to detect a leaking gas line the couple had left open.

The Collinses’ attorney, Colin Simpson of Simpson, Kepler and Edwards in Cody, gave Park County District Court Judge Steven Cranfill notice last month that the couple had reached a settlement with MDU.
The terms are confidential, attorneys for both parties told the Tribune.
Simpson said in his clients were pleased to finally have the incident resolved after some five and a half years.
“They were very eager to resolve the matter and move on with their lives,” Simpson said. The Collinses’ home on the corner of Absaroka and Seventh streets was destroyed by the massive explosion on Oct. 26, 2006. They currently live in Fort Morgan, Colo., having moved there after the incident.
The couple’s two-year-old lawsuit against MDU had been set for a trial soon.
Each side in the case had presented different analyses about the cause of the fire.
In sworn testimony, Jared Collins said he had apparently left the end of a gas pipe uncapped when he switched to an electric water heater earlier that year; Collins made the switch after the couple’s gas service was shut off for non-payment.
On the morning of Oct. 26, the Collinses caught up on their payments and MDU restored service. About 10 minutes after the serviceman and Lynne Collins and her son left the home, the house blew up. No one was injured.
The Collinses would have argued at trial that MDU’s service man negligently failed to notice that gas was leaking from that open T-connection from the time he restored service to when he left the home about a half-an-hour later. The couple claimed MDU had a duty to make sure the system was safe before leaving.
MDU was prepared to argue that it couldn’t have happened like that. The company said in court filings that if the line had been leaking the whole time, the service man would have seen the meter spinning and smelled and heard the leaking gas. MDU also contended that, if gas had been leaking from the start, the service man would have blown himself up when he later lit the boiler’s pilot light with a match.
Further, “By his own admission, Jared (Collins) created the hazardous situation which caused the explosion,” argued MDU’s attorney, Kim Cannon of Cannon and Davis in Sheridan, in a pre-trial memorandum, referring to the uncapped line.
A Powell police investigator, a state fire marshal’s office investigator and an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent concluded the explosion was the result of arson by Lynne Collins. They alleged she had sabotaged the gas line after the service man left. That, the investigators alleged, was an effort to claim the insurance money during a time of financial hardship. Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric charged Collins with first-degree arson in March 2007, but dropped the charge a year later, citing unspecified new information.
After their own investigation, the Collinses’ insurance company, State Farm, paid the couple’s $237,573 claim for the home, their property and temporary housing.
In the lawsuit, the Collinses’ attorneys filed reports from State Farm’s investigators that disputed law enforcement’s conclusion that the explosion was arson.
One such investigator, Robert Toth of IRIS Fire Investigation, said Lynne Collins would not have had time to sabotage the line, start a fire, put her son in the car and be at Rimrock Tire in the eight minutes between the service man’s departure and the explosion.
“It is an incredible hypothesis to support that Mrs. Collins, with her 2-year-old son in tow, would sabotage the gas line, and then place herself in inescapable harm’s way by igniting clothing on the floor of the laundry room as her home filled with natural gas,” Toth wrote.
Larry DeGraw, a former Casper police investigator and owner of Wind River Investigations, was also skeptical that Collins destroyed her home.
“I did not see in any of the reports of any property missing from the residence such as pictures, marriage licenses, photos, etc. that usually accompanies fires that are intentionally set by female fire setters,” he wrote in a report. He also said female fire-starters do not typically endanger children, and questioned why Collins, who’d had enough compassion to cremate a pet and preserve its remains in an urn, would “leave her six cats inside to perish in the fire.”
Dennis Schlep, of Advanced Engineering Investigations Corp., investigated the explosion for State Farm and concluded it was more likely that gas was flowing into the house from the time the service man restored service — a span of about 40 minutes — than in the roughly 10 minutes between when he left and the explosion.
However, MDU’s expert, Randy Harris of Fay Engineering, had done modeling based on the Collinses’ gas meter and concluded that actually, enough gas could have leaked after the MDU serviceman and Lynne Collins left the home to fuel such an explosion.
“There were differing opinions from experts and each side thought their expert was right,” said Simpson, the Collinses’ attorney.
“It was difficult from an expert perspective, it was a difficult case,” he added.
In the suit, the Collinses were seeking reimbursement of the $237,573 on behalf of State Farm. They were also seeking an additional $10,521 for property the insurance company didn’t cover, their $500 insurance deductible and $78,048 in lost wages — arguing Lynne Collins lost her job at the Powell hospital because of the stress of the explosion and investigation.
MDU said she was fired for other reasons.
Because the terms are confidential, it’s unknown how large or how small a sum MDU may have paid to settle the suit.

 

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