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Man seriously injured in Northwest Baltimore gas explosion last year is suing BGE, city

A man who was seriously injured in the major gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore in August is suing Baltimore Gas & Electric and the city, claiming that both are liable for the blast that badly burned him and buried him in his house.

Attorneys for Terry James, who rented a basement apartment at 4232 Labyrinth Road, claim BGE knew its gas lines were unsafe and failed to respond to a meter for the house that recorded “a shocking and abnormally high rate of natural gas flowing into the building basement” for about six hours.

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“BGE opted not to respond to the area promptly and address the gas leak in any fashion,” the complaint says. “For the 6 consecutive hours natural gas leaked into the basement of 4232 Labyrinth Rd., Terry James was sleeping in his basement apartment while natural gas engulfed his body, his lungs and mind.”

BGE spokesman Aaron Koos said while the company “does not comment on the merits of pending litigation, it is important to remember that BGE’s equipment was inspected, tested, and found to be operating safely and was not the cause of the tragic natural gas explosion that occurred on Aug. 10.”

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“We remind all customers to contact BGE immediately at 877-778-7798 or call 911 from a safe location to report a gas odor or any issue with gas equipment,” Koos said in an emailed statement.

The explosion happened the day after homeowner Leroy Johnson hired an HVAC company to install “and/or work on a furnace and gas piping as well as an air conditioning unit” at the house, the lawsuit says.

It says the homeowner “returned to the property to address complaints from his tenants” around 1 a.m. Aug. 10, the day of the explosion, “engaged with various pieces of equipment involving the gas meter, then reassured his tenants, including Terry James, that everything was fine.”

When James turned on the stove to make breakfast around 9:30 a.m., the blast threw him into the basement and buried him under the house, causing second-degree burns over his head, face, neck, chest, arms, back and legs, the lawsuit says.

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He had to be extricated by first responders; his feet were amputated; and he suffered vocal cord paralysis and severe post-traumatic stress disorder, among other injuries, according to the suit.

BGE said the day after the explosion that it had found no leaks on the homes’ gas mains, and that company data indicated “some type of issue beyond the BGE meter on customer-owned equipment.”

But the lawsuit claims BGE had performed a June 2019 inspection of its gas lines in the block that found “its 1960 gas infrastructure was unsafe, needed replacing, promoted gas leaks and indicated BGE was required to monitor [it] even more closely . . . for gas leaks no matter the source or cause.”

The lawsuit filed last week was amended from a January filing, which also listed the homeowner and the HVAC contractor, Jimmy Gusky Heating & Air, as defendants. The initial suit also listed the mother of Joseph Graham, a 20-year-old Morgan State University sophomore killed in the blast, as a plaintiff. The Labyrinth Road blast also killed 61-year-old Lonnie Herriott.

“Our matter as to the homeowner and contractor has been resolved with a confidential amount,” said Latoya Francis-Williams, James’ attorney, of the Offices of A. Dwight Pettit.

Jimmy Gusky Heating & Air and the homeowner could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit says James was an unwitting resident of an unlicensed rental property, and one of several people living in the house at the time.

It claims the City of Baltimore “had a duty” to ensure the house did not serve as a multifamily property without proper licenses, and officials should have required BGE to “insure reasonable promptness in the detection of all natural gas leaks that might occur from any cause.”

“Baltimore City failed to do so, even after having specific knowledge of the dilapidated and deteriorating gas pipes servicing 4200 block Labyrinth Rd. and having knowledge of the substantial fines to Baltimore Gas and Electric by the Public Service Commission for their safety violations leading to prior gas explosions in and near the City of Baltimore,” the lawsuit says.

City officials are “looking into this matter,” said Cal Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Brandon M. Scott, in a statement. He did not elaborate.

The Public Service Commission fined BGE $25,000 in 2017 for failing to follow federal pipeline safety regulations following a 2015 Columbia explosion. In January, the utility company was fined more than $437,000 for safety violations that caused a 2019 gas explosion at a Columbia office park.

Leaks are so frequent that nearly two dozen of them are discovered each day, on average, according to data BGE reports to federal authorities. The number of leaks increased by 75 percent from 2009 to 2016 — amid what officials called a “dramatic” increase in the failure of pipe joints dating from the 1950s and 1960s. The company is in the midst of a massive project to upgrade its pipes, investing $165 million in 2019 alone, but some have questioned whether it’s moving quickly enough.

The Baltimore City Fire Department’s report on the explosion said “it can’t be ruled out that improper or incomplete installation of the new HVAC system was the cause for the gas leak.”

The contractor was licensed, but the city has not located a permit for the HVAC work, the fire chief said.

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