- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) - Time Warner Cable must pay nearly $6 million as part of a lawsuit alleging it was largely responsible for a fatal natural gas explosion that leveled an upscale Kansas City restaurant, jurors ruled Thursday.

Brothers David and Jimmy Frantze, who operated the popular JJ’s restaurant, were seeking more than $9 million in damages from Time Warner Cable and USIC Locating Services, which contracts with utility companies. Their lawsuit was among several that were filed following the February 2013 explosion, which killed restaurant worker Megan Cramer and injured more than a dozen other people.

The blast occurred after a crew for Heartland Midwest, a Kansas-based cable company subcontractor, breached a natural gas supply line with an underground borer. Fumes from that leak filled the building, then ignited.

Jurors ruled that Time Warner Cable was mostly responsible and ordered the company to pay $5.78 million. The jury decided USIC wasn’t liable in the case.

“We know no court decision can undo this tragedy,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Pedelty said in an emailed statement after the verdict. “We’ll take some time to review the court’s decision before deciding our next step in this case.”

The explosion, near the city’s upscale Country Club Plaza shopping and entertainment district, also damaged two neighboring buildings.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Steven Emerson, argued that USIC incorrectly marked the location of underground utility lines. He also alleged that Time Warner Cable didn’t appear to show sufficient interest in the drilling project, even though it was taking place in a dense urban environment with a multitude of subsurface utility lines.

“I think what the jury is saying to all the utilities is that you need to be more careful,” Emerson said following the verdict.

Lawyers for Time Warner Cable and USIC sought to pin blame on Missouri Gas Energy, saying the utility’s response to the gas leak was inadequate. The defendants also said the damages being sought were inflated and that JJ’s staff shared some of the blame because they failed to turn off pilot lights.

Jurors found that Time Warner was 98 percent responsible, while JJ’s was 2 percent responsible, which reduced the damages the cable company owed.

Emerson said the restaurant, which has since reopened in a new location, has made training changes.

USIC issued a statement calling the verdict clear vindication, saying: “Protecting the public’s safety and our customers’ underground facilities have been and will always be our top priorities.”

Missouri Gas Energy and Heartland Midwest were dismissed from the case before the trial started last month. In a March settlement, Missouri Gas Energy denied violating safety rules but agreed to increase training and change some emergency procedures.

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