BOSTON — Lawyers who handled the $143 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit against Columbia Gas of Massachusetts are trying to get that money out more quickly to people who've now been affected by both the September 2018 gas disaster and coronavirus shutdowns.
The settlement, which includes thousands of dollars of lump-sum and itemized payments for gas disaster victims, was approved Friday by Superior Court Judge James Lang.
Litigants asked the court to move the deadline to file claims back one month to March 27, to expedite processing of claims. Lang approved the request on Monday, lawyers said.
John Roddy, of Bailey & Glasser LLP, a lead attorney in the case, said the firm is working to fast-track payouts to the region's businesses and residents.
"It's really a double-whammy to go through the catastrophe a year and a half ago and just as residents and businesses are starting to get back on their feet the coronavirus shuts everything down," he said.
Roddy, however, cautioned that a fast-tracking of the settlement payouts isn't necessarily a done deal.
One issue is that Heffler Claims Group and others executing the settlement are working with limited staff and resources amid coronavirus shutdowns.
"There's been a domino effect throughout the various industries that we're dealing with," Roddy said. "But we're working with Heffler to see if we can expedite the process."
Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said many residents and businesses affected by the gas disaster are still struggling, and the coronavirus shutdowns are making it worse.
He hopes settlement payouts can be processed quickly to help people stay afloat during the prolonged closures that have put many people out of work, he said.
"The restaurants need that money, businesses need that money, and residents need that money, and it's sitting in someone's bank account," he said. "We need to get that money out to them now."
Settlement of the class action case comes after Columbia Gas agreed to plead guilty to a criminal count of violating the federal Pipeline Safety Act. Its plea deal included a $53 million fine and required the utility's parent company, NiSource, to sell its Massachusetts business.
Eversource Energy is planning to buy Columbia Gas of Massachusetts for $1.1 billion.
The Sept. 13, 2018, disaster killed a teenager, injured dozens and damaged more than 130 homes in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence.
Under terms of the court-approved settlement, the average payment to a family of four is estimated to be $8,750, according to court documents.
At least 11,500 claims have been filed to date from residents and businesses in the three affected communities.
They include 10,432 residential claims and 645 claims from area businesses that suffered losses or went out of business altogether.
The claims, represent a combined total of 35,000 people, run the gamut from spoiled food, to lodging costs, to property damage and more, according to final hearing testimony.
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera had asked the judge to reduce the $28 million in legal fees to be paid to attorneys under terms of the settlement, but the request was rejected.
Finegold, an attorney, said he opposes an appeal wants to see the money disbursed quickly.
"This is money that could help the people of the Merrimack Valley immediately," he said. "We need to get it out there now."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.