The February 2013 fire and explosion that destroyed a popular Kansas City restaurant can be blamed on a “combination of errors,” a lawyer representing the owners said Tuesday as a civil trial opened.
Employees of an excavating company and a utility marking company contributed to the explosion and fire that killed one restaurant employee and injured 15 others, said Steven Emerson, who represents the owners of JJ’s restaurant and its former building at 910 W. 48th St.
But a lawyer representing Time Warner Cable Midwest, which hired the excavating company, said the employees of Missouri Gas Energy didn’t respond to the emergency in a professional manner and contributed to the tragedy.
“The gas company didn’t really do its part,” Fred Starrett said.
Brothers David and Jimmy Frantze, who operated the restaurant with manager Matt Nichols, are seeking more than $9.3 million in damages to help offset the loss of the building, its renowned wine collection and costs of starting a new restaurant south of the old location.
The civil trial, which involves one of many lawsuits connected to the explosion and fire, could last about four weeks at the Jackson County Courthouse.
Emerson said fault for the fire and explosion could be traced to Time Warner Cable as well as Heartland Midwest LLC, an Olathe excavating contractor that Time Warner Cable hired to drill subsurface paths for the fiber optic cable it intended to run through the area.
Emerson alleged that Heartland Midwest was “careless” in its work and that a boring-machine operator hadn’t received proper training on the device and had not received an operating manual in Spanish.
Heartland Midwest employees hesitated close to 30 minutes before notifying emergency authorities, Emerson said. That contributed to the time that natural gas escaping from a punctured 2-inch line spread through the area.
Much of that gas ultimately accumulated in the restaurant’s attic area before being ignited, likely by a furnace in that attic, Emerson said.
Emerson also said that an employee of USIC Locating Services Inc., which marks the location of subsurface utility lines, had “botched” the assignment and shouldn’t have been there, as he had received several reprimands for poor performance in employee evaluations.
Starrett, meanwhile, defended Heartland Midwest, saying the company was experienced in the horizontal directional drilling often used to clear underground paths for fiber optic cable. Heartland Midwest employees stayed on the scene, and some suffered injuries, he said.
Instead of concentrating on how the gas line got ruptured — something that happens often — jurors should consider all the errors that followed, Starrett said. He blamed those for the explosion.
One MGE employee assigned to enter a nearby building and check on interior natural gas levels chose to handle other tasks first, including helping park a truck, he said.
Damages being sought include approximately $2.3 million for the building, $1.3 million in lost net income and more $1.1 million for the wine collection, built up over about 28 years, that included “some of the rarest wines anywhere,” Emerson said.
Starrett, however, questioned the damage estimates, saying the restaurant “made very little money” in recent years.
He also questioned the value of the wine.
Both sides pledged to bring in wine experts to testify to the collection’s worth.