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Two years ago, Kentucky coal miner Fairon Johnson was just trying to get a decent shower when he flipped a switch to increase his water pressure and ignited an explosion that badly burned his face. That accident in his well house recently landed him a $270 million jury award — the largest ever in Kentucky. A Knott County, Ky., jury on Oct. 17 ordered Kentucky West Virginia Gas and Equitable Resources Inc. to pay Johnson the huge award after hearing testimony that explosive gas seeping from an old gas well allegedly caused the blast. “If there’s one thing I’ve got to stress, the reason the jury did this is — it was not a runaway jury, it was not a crazy jury — they did this because they want somebody to look at these gas wells,” said the plaintiff’s attorney, Gary Johnson of Gary C. Johnson P.S.C. in Pikeville, Ky. Fairon Johnson, 42, alleged that gas traveling through an underground water aquifer seeped into his well from a nearby gas well. Johnson’s attorney said the gas company had removed the steel casing when they drilled the gas wells, allowing waste, gas, brine and salt water to seep into the water aquifers. Kentucky West Virginia Gas, a subsidiary of Equitable Resources Inc. in Pittsburgh, denied the allegations and is appealing. “We continue to believe these allegations are completely without merit,” Kentucky West Virginia Gas President Jeff Burke said in a press release. The defendant’s attorney, Robert Connally of Stites & Harbison in Louisville, Ky., would not return calls seeking comment. According to a company statement, the June 5, 2000, accident was caused by the accumulation of naturally occurring gas in the plaintiff’s well house, not the gas well in question. The defendants maintain that the well was built in 1941 in accordance with regulations, and has operated without incident for six decades. Gary Johnson said he proved otherwise by presenting the jury with 14 charts detailing how the wells were drilled and the casings removed, and two experts testified that the sole source for the explosion was the gas well. “I asked the jury, ‘Did they breach ordinary care when they drilled the gas well and removed the casings?’” he said.

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