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Minnehaha Academy president, coach file lawsuits over school explosion

Updated: July 16, 2019 06:46 PM

Minnehaha Academy's president, assistant soccer coach, and other staff members are suing the gas company and contractor who were involved in the moving of a gas meter that led to an explosion which collapsed a portion of the school's upper campus.  

The five lawsuits, filed last Friday, allege employees of CenterPoint and Master Mechanical "ran to save themselves and ignored the safety of others" when they realized explosive conditions existed at the school on Aug. 2, 2017.

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The explosion killed the school's janitor, 81-year-old John Carlson, and receptionist, 47-year-old Ruth Berg. Nine others were injured.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions here, and as is often the case, it really takes the confluence of negligence of several people to come together to form an enormous disaster like this, so I suspect there will be more than enough fault to go around," said Attorney James Schwebel.

Minnehaha Academy President Donna Harris, along with her husband Rick Harris, filed one of the lawsuits. That lawsuit indicates Donna Harris sustained "substantial injuries" in the explosion, including a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Assistant soccer coach Bryan Duffey, along with his wife Jamie Duffey-Jeltema, filed a similar lawsuit. Following the explosion, first responders pulled Duffey from underneath debris and rushed him to the hospital, where doctors were forced to amputate his right leg.

Three additional lawsuits filed by Minnehaha Academy staff members Dan Bowles, Joel Maart, and Bonnie Anderson allege they each suffered concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the explosion. 

The lawsuits filed by Bowles and Maart also include their respective spouses as plaintiffs.

The five lawsuits allege, before disconnecting the service line from the old meter, CenterPoint and Master Mechanical workers failed to inspect and safely close shut-off valves upstream from the meter.

Because shut-off valves were not closed, the lawsuit claims gas flowed into a confined "pit" area of the school where it accumulated and eventually exploded.

"There were two gas shut-off valves, one in the building which was found to be open, one 40 feet from the building called a curb valve, and both of those were wide open, that is gross negligence," added Schwebel.

A report from the National Transportation Safety Board said a school maintenance worker heard and smelled the gas and went to the source in the basement meter room. He exited and made an announcement over his hand-held radio, saying there was gas in the building, and everyone should evacuate immediately.

The report states after making that announcement, he raced up the stairs to search for occupants. The building exploded less than a minute later.


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"Why did they (workers) flee the building, why did they leave it to someone else, an employee at the academy, to sound the alert here?" Schwebel questioned.

A civil lawsuit filed by Berg's mother and daughter against CenterPoint Energy and Master Mechanical was settled in August 2018.

CenterPoint Energy released the following statement to KSTP:

"CenterPoint Energy has been in contact with Mr. Duffey's attorneys and attorneys for others affected since shortly after the incident.  We were aware that suits were being filed and will continue to work with their attorneys toward a resolution.  Our thoughts continue to be with Mr. Duffey and all who were impacted by this incident."

Master Mechanical issued the following statement to KSTP:

"We recognize that this is a very difficult situation for everyone involved.

"We have great respect for the legal process and the ongoing National Transportation Safety Board investigation, and do not want to say anything which might influence or compromise the integrity of those proceedings or violate the privacy of those involved."

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Credits

Tim Vetscher and Jessica Miles

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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