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A Midwestern utility has agreed to an $8 million settlement of a wrongful-death claim brought by the family of a St. Louis man fatally burned after he inadvertently ignited leaking natural gas. The case stemmed from the Feb. 22, 1999, explosion at the Valley Park, Mo., home of Louis Brown. Brown flicked a butane lighter in the breezeway of his home as he was preparing to light a barbecue grill. That ignited natural gas that had leaked from a hole in a buried, corroded copper pipe connecting the house with the gas main. The resulting fireball fatally burned Brown. The fire was witnessed by his wife and children. Brown v. Laclede Gas Co. Inc., No 992-00480 (Cir. Ct., St. Louis). The Laclede company was represented by house counsel Paul T. Hunker, with Theodore J. MacDonald and Amy C. Gunn of Burroughs, Hepler, Broom, MacDonald & Hebrank of Edwardsville, Ill. The trial judge was Michael Calvin. The defense attorneys declined to discuss trial strategy. Laclede, in a written statement, said that the settlement was reached through “a process involving third-party intermediaries to which all parties agreed” and acknowledged that “the event would not, in all likelihood, have occurred if all of [Laclede's] internal procedures had been fully followed.” Plaintiffs’ attorney John G. Simon, a partner at St. Louis’ Simon, Lowe & Passanante, said that he declined to enter into settlement talks until he and his associate, Jason D. Dodson, had combed Laclede files during discovery. Simon said, referring to Laclede, “They wanted to settle early, but my standard practice is to complete discovery first. I figured that if this happened to one pipe, it had happened to others. As we went through discovery, this became more than one wrongful-death case. The issue became Laclede’s conduct and knowledge of a problem.” TWO VITAL DOCUMENTS According to case records, three weeks before the accident the Brown family had reported a gas leak in the yard to Laclede. A crew was dispatched and found a leak in a line to a neighboring house but did not check the line to the Brown home. Simon said that two documents uncovered during discovery were key to his case. A 1974 internal memo documented routine corrosion leaks from buried copper lines and concluded that the lines would remain reliably intact for about 10 years. A 1981 study commissioned by Laclede found that the number of leaks reported had increased annually in four of the previous five years and predicted that leaks would grow more numerous as time passed. “After the 1981 report, Laclede worked harder to find the leaks, but what they should have done was fix the problem,” said Simon. “We had a fairly good case that they were negligent in this instance at the Brown home, but they should have been replacing these lines in 1980 or 1981 anyway, so the accident never should have happened.” The case was settled before trial for $8 million, with a stipulation that the files not be sealed, said Simon. “It was very important to my clients that there be no confidentiality agreement, that the facts be known,” he said. Last month, after the settlement of the Brown case and extensive local news coverage, Laclede agreed to an $80 million, 10-year program to replace approximately 80,000 copper lines in its system, Simon said. “That program is not part of our settlement, but I believe it is a result of our settlement,” he said.

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