Jury decides $10.4 million award for Portland natural gas explosion trauma

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Two people have together been awarded $10.4 million at trial after a jury found they suffered hearing loss and emotional trauma when they narrowly escaped a natural gas explosion in Portland.

Lawyers for gas leak investigator Eric Rader and stylist Kristen Prentice said both suffered life-altering changes, including post-traumatic stress disorder, after an excavator hit a buried gas pipeline Oct. 19, 2016.

Rader had found high levels of gas inside a corner bagel shop and warned firefighters to flee shortly before the blast obliterated the three-story commercial building and gutted a neighboring structure.

“The reading on his gas meter indicated extreme risk,” said Greg Kafoury, the attorney for Rader and Prentice. “Rader notified nearby first responders, saving many.”

Prentice was about to enter the salon next door when firefighters alerted her to the danger. Both took shelter nearby.

Rader and Prentice are now permanently afflicted with hearing loss and painful sensitivity to loud noises, Kafoury said. Their lawsuits were tried jointly in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

On Thursday, a jury awarded $6.5 million to Prentice and $3.9 million to Rader — the largest payout to date over the blast. Jurors found contractor Loy Clark Pipeline Co. liable for both workers’ medical expenses and lost earnings.

Each award included $2.3 million in punitive damages, though about 70% of that money will be directed to a state crime victims fund under Oregon law.

Loy Clark has been sued at least ten times over the explosion. A review of court records shows that a handful of lawsuits have been settled for undisclosed amounts, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Two other lawsuits — filed separately by Portland Bagelworks owners Kimberly and Richard Bartell and Art Work Rebels tattoo business owners Erin and Jason Kundell — are set for trial next year.

Chiropractor Scott Shephard was awarded $232,500 last year in a jury trial.

In a statement, Loy Clark lawyer Mark Scheer said the company apologizes to everyone affected by the explosion, but denied that its work crew acted recklessly or without care for the safety of others.

“The crew on this project made a terrible mistake, and Loy Clark accepts responsibility,” Scheer said.

Scheer said the company has since added safety protocols and cooperated with the Oregon Public Utilities Commission’s investigation into the explosion.

Kafoury said the investigation resulted in a fine that was suspended.

Mark McDougal, who litigated the case with Kafoury, said a pipeline safety expert testified during the trial that Loy Clark’s workers ignored paint markings showing where the pipeline was buried and didn’t follow proper checklists.

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