SALEM, Mass. (WBZ NewsRadio) — The final hearing in the class action settlement between Columbia Gas and residents affected by the September 2018 Merrimack Valley gas disaster was held Thursday in Salem Superior Court.
The courtroom was packed as lawyers representing the suit explained the breakdown of the settlement, and affected residents spoke about the hardships they've faced in the year and a half since the gas explosions and fires rocked their communities.
There have been 35,000 residential claims filed from residents in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, with a payout of $143 million.
Class action attorney Leo Boyle said attorneys took a risk with the settlement.
"I, for one, and having observed my brothers and sisters beside me, don't feel for one instant that we tried to take advantage of anybody," he said. "This has been, for me, a great professional and personal privilege to represent the people of Merrimack Valley."
Mary Mlodzianowski has lived in Lawrence for 29 years, and watched her neighbor's home burn for two hours before firefighters could get to it that terrible night. Her home was damaged.
"My life was totally disrupted," she said. "I was exhausted. I was spent. And the anger was like steam coming out of my ears."
She said she hated dealing with Columbia Gas, and had been against the settlement because of that experience—but now, she said, she's for it.
"My community has been through hell," Mlodzianowski said.
But Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, an outspoken critic of Columbia Gas and that company's response to the crisis, took the stand at Thursday's hearing to speak against the settlement. Rivera said the cut of that amount going to attorneys, 16.5 percent, is too much.
"A police officer in my community [gets a salary of] $85,000, roughly," he said. "So, a day's worth of work for the attorneys involved in this would be half a year's pay for a police officer, and half a year's pay for a firefighter ... I do question whether that much of the settlement money should go toward the attorneys, and not into the hands of all of us affected by this disaster."
He called that cut, which he said would amount to about $44,000 a day for the attorneys, "vulture culture."
The average payout for a family of four would be $8,700.
Rivera noted that he himself is part of the affected class, as he had to evacuate his home along with his wife and young children.
The mayor said it was unfair to ask people to opt in to the settlement, believing there should be more outreach on the part of Columbia Gas. He also said the fact that only four people went on record objecting to the settlement should not be seen as widespread consent to it, because "people are tired."
"I plead with the court," he said. "I plead, don't treat this like a boilerplate class action suit ... this is personal."
WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) reports