A lawyer representing Time Warner Cable urged a jury Tuesday to find Missouri Gas Energy solely at fault for the February 2013 fatal fire and explosion that destroyed JJ’s restaurant near the Country Club Plaza.
“Missouri Gas Energy owns all of the responsibility,” Ken Snow told jurors at the Jackson County Courthouse as the civil case prepared to go to the jury after five weeks of testimony.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that both Time Warner Cable and USIC Locating Services botched their duties that day and the jury should make them take responsibility for their roles in the JJ’s disaster.
“The next time it might be a hospital, a school, a library or office building,” said Steven Emerson, who represents the plaintiffs.
The natural-gas-fueled explosion and fire killed one employee, injured 15 people and destroyed the building at 910 W. 48th St.
Brothers David and Jimmy Frantze, who operated the restaurant with manager Matt Nichols, are seeking more than $9.2 million in damages in the civil suit to help offset the loss of the restaurant, its wine collection and the costs of starting a new restaurant just south of the old location.
Missouri Gas Energy and Heartland Midwest, a drilling contractor, were dismissed from the litigation before the trial opened last month.
Closing arguments began Tuesday morning and stretched through the afternoon.
Emerson defended the plaintiffs’ damage claims, which included about $2.9 million in damages to the original restaurant building and approximately $6.3 million in damages to the restaurant, of which about $1.3 million represented the loss of its wine collection.
Some of the damages being claimed also included about $1.7 million in rental expenses connected to the new JJ’s restaurant, which opened in November just south of the original location.
“Nobody is double-dipping,” said Emerson. “We are asking for the expenses necessary to put JJ’s restaurant back in business.”
USIC incorrectly marked the location of underground utility lines, Emerson told the jurors. Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable didn’t appear to show sufficient interest in the drilling project, even though it involved horizontal directional drilling underground in a dense urban environment with a multitude of subsurface utility lines, he said.
Emerson urged jurors to consider awarding not only actual damages but also punitive damages as well.
“You can consider the harm done to Megan Cramer,” Emerson said, referencing the JJ’s employee who died in the explosion. “You can consider the harm done to JJ’s employees.
“You’ve got to send a message to these people, a message of ‘Change your behavior.’”
A lawyer for the defendants fired accusations back at JJ’s.
Snow argued that if jurors do not find Missouri Gas Energy as the sole cause of the disaster, they could assign percentages to Time Warner and USIC — and the plaintiffs.
“The plaintiffs are trying to convince you the fire started in the attic,” Snow said. “Why? Because there’s no doubt that this explosion was started in the kitchen.”
Given that, Snow said, “JJ’s does bear some fault.”
Snow told jurors that Kansas City Fire Department employees offered to turn off kitchen pilot lights and other possible ignition sources but were denied access by the restaurant manager, who said he had the situation under control.
Also, Snow said, a restaurant chef admitted that he had used marijuana and cocaine the night before the explosion, had consumed alcohol the day of the explosion and never had received training from restaurant managers on turning off possible ignition sources.
Although not intent on “embarrassing anyone,” Snow said he wanted jurors “to have all the information.”
Snow also criticized the approximately $9.2 million in damages being sought. The real value of the plaintiffs’ loss, Snow said, would be just over $3.2 million.
Most of the restaurant’s equipment and furniture already had been fully depreciated, he said, while values assigned to some of the wine had been “totally arbitrary.” Snow also criticized the plaintiffs for claiming rental expenses relating to their new restaurant.
“They want to be paid for their old restaurant and their new restaurant,” Snow said. “You don’t get both.”
David Helms, representing USIC, described how Missouri Gas Energy repeatedly failed to follow its emergency protocols.
“There’s no way that fault should be assessed against USIC,” he said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs are trying to nearly double the damages JJ’s suffered in the explosion, Helms said.
“Do not let them take what was truly a tragedy and turn it into a travesty,” he said.
In March, Missouri Gas Energy settled a complaint alleging that it failed to take adequate measures to ensure safety before the blast. In the settlement approved by the Missouri Public Service Commission, the company agreed to increase training and change some emergency procedures.
The company denied violating any safety rules.
After lawyers completed making their cases late Tuesday afternoon, Jackson County Circuit Judge Robert M. Schieber instructed jurors to select a foreman and be ready to continue their deliberations on Wednesday.