JJ’s restaurant verdict: Time Warner 98 percent to blame for 2013 explosion, fire

A natural gas explosion and fire destroyed JJ’s restaurant near the Country Club Plaza on the evening of Feb. 19, 2013.
A natural gas explosion and fire destroyed JJ’s restaurant near the Country Club Plaza on the evening of Feb. 19, 2013. tljungblad@kcstar.com

A Jackson County jury found Time Warner Cable primarily at fault Thursday for the February 2013 explosion and fire that destroyed JJ’s restaurant, killed one worker and injured 15 other people.

The jury set damages at $5.9 million and assigned 98 percent of the liability to Time Warner. It assigned the other 2 percent to the restaurant’s owners and operators.

It did not assign any fault to USIC Locating Services, the company that marked where underground utilities ran outside the restaurant just west of the Country Club Plaza.

Two other defendants, Missouri Gas Energy and Heartland Midwest, the drilling contractor that ruptured the underground gas line, were dismissed from the case well before the five-week trial started in July. Such dismissals usually indicate settlements have been reached, but no parties have confirmed that.

JJ’s owners had sought more than $9.2 million in damages.

Brothers David and Jimmy Frantze operated the restaurant with manager Matt Nichols. David Frantze was in court when the verdict was read about 2 p.m. Thursday at the Jackson County Courthouse. He did not talk to reporters afterward.

Steven Emerson, a lawyer for the Frantzes, said the verdict pleased his clients.

“What the jury is saying to all the utility companies is ‘You need to be more careful,’” Emerson said.

“We hope if any good can come out of this tragedy, that it will be big companies paying more attention to their contractors and paying more attention to the law, and trying to follow it when they are installing underground utilities in our city.”

In Missouri, a video service provider is obligated to make sure its contractors follow all laws and safety practices, Emerson said.

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

A statement from USIC Locating Services thanked the jury for a verdict “that clearly vindicates USIC.”

“Protecting the public’s safety and our customers’ underground facilities have been and will always be our top priorities,” the statement said.

On Feb. 19, 2013, roughly an hour after a Heartland Midwest crew laying conduit for Time Warner ruptured a natural gas pipe outside the restaurant, something ignited natural gas that had accumulated inside the restaurant.

The explosion and ensuing fire destroyed the building at 910 W. 48th St. and damaged other nearby buildings.

Jurors awarded no punitive damages Thursday.

Because the jury found JJ’s liable for 2 percent of the damages, Time Warner has to pay 98 percent of the $5.9 million verdict, Emerson said.

The jury apparently wanted to send a message that JJ’s should “have more training for employees and a better evacuation plan,” Emerson said. “That’s been accomplished.”

The jury split its damages award two ways. It designated $3.5 million to JJ’s Bar and Grill Inc. for damages sustained by the restaurant. It awarded the balance of $2.4 million to JJ’s Building, LLC, a separate entity that owned the former restaurant structure.

“We didn’t get every penny we asked for, but it’s clear that (the jury) addressed this whole case very seriously, both the liability and damages sides,” Emerson said.

The verdict, Emerson said, will help the restaurant’s owners and operators continue at their new location, which opened last November just south of the old restaurant.

This suit was one of more than a dozen filed after the explosion.

Carter and Genevieve Cramer, the parents of the only person to die in the event, 46-year-old Megan Cramer, settled last year but did not release a settlement amount. That suit listed as defendants Missouri Gas Energy, Time Warner, USIC, Southern Union Co., Heartland Midwest and a Heartland employee.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.