Lawsuits filed by several victims of a fatal explosion at Minnehaha Academy two years ago allege that CenterPoint Energy and contractor Master Mechanical were negligent in their handling of natural gas that led to the blast.
The lawsuits, filed Friday in Hennepin County District Court, assert that the “negligence and carelessness” of both companies directly caused bodily and emotional injuries to plaintiffs Bryan Duffey, Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris, Dan Bowles, Joel Maart and Bonnie Anderson during the incident at the private school on Aug. 2, 2017.
Nine people were wounded, and part-time custodian John F. Carlson, 82, and receptionist Ruth Berg, 47, were killed. The explosion occurred as CenterPoint Energy and Master Mechanical were moving gas meters from the inside to the outside of the building.
The suits allege that the meter relocation work was abnormally and inherently dangerous, and that both companies should have been aware of potential safety concerns.
Employees of CenterPoint and Master Mechanical failed to close shut-off valves, allowing gas to flow into a combined pit area and explode once the supply line disconnected from the meter. Minnehaha Academy staff were not made aware of the dangerous work occurring in the building.
Once the supply line was disconnected, company employees ran to safety instead of alerting others about the immediate danger, according to the lawsuit and a National Transportation Safety Board report.
The suit filed on behalf of Duffey, who was the school’s assistant boys soccer coach, blames CenterPoint and Master Mechanical for injuries. Duffey sustained the most severe physical injuries of the plaintiffs, including the loss of a leg above the knee, a shattered leg, a brain injury and the loss of taste and smell, said James Schwebel, a personal injury attorney retained by Duffey. Duffey and his wife, Jamie, each asked for damages greater than $50,000.
He suffered “a lot of things which are going to affect him for the rest of his life,” Schwebel said. “The first item that the jury will answer is his medical expenses up to the time of trial. And since they are already over $850,000, we think that’ll be the minimum amount they would deal with.”
Costs to make Duffey’s home handicap accessible, wage loss, pain and suffering, impairment of earning capacity, and future suffering and disability will likely be considered in the trial, said Schwebel.
Other plaintiffs asked for damages related to concussions, PTSD, and bodily and emotional injuries.
The suits go on to say that Master Mechanical lacked “fitness and/or competency” to perform the work they were contracted for. Personnel training, equipment, and safety protocols were all alleged as areas where the company was unfit.
“We recognize that this is a very difficult situation for everyone involved,” Master Mechanical said in a statement. “We have great respect for the legal process and the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation, and do not want to say anything which might influence or compromise the integrity of those proceedings or violate the privacy of those involved.”
Master Mechanical is currently still in operation, according to their crisis representative.
Legal representation for CenterPoint Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, Berg’s family settled a lawsuit with Master Mechanical and CenterPoint.
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112