WILSON – The question of who was to blame for the propane gas explosion that leveled a Wilson home in July, killing a 14-year-old girl, apparently will be hashed out in court.
Jody and Judith Johnson and their surviving daughter Katie brought suit in State Supreme Court Friday, seeking unspecified damages from Noco Energy Corp., the Town of Tonawanda company that supplied propane gas to their home at 4972 Chestnut Road.
The house blew up shortly after 6 a.m. July 24, killing Sarah Johnson, 14. Katie Johnson, 19, suffered severe burns and was hospitalized for seven weeks. Both parents and son Nathan, 16, suffered less serious injuries.
The suit was filed by attorney Matthew J. Beck of the Buffalo firm of Duke Holzman Photiadis & Gresens.
It acknowledges that Jody Johnson, 45, disconnected the 500-gallon Noco propane tank the night before the blast and hooked up a 100-pound propane tank he owned to the copper line leading into the home.
This occurred after the Johnsons smelled gas in their home, starting in the late morning or early afternoon of July 23. “It was not our tank [that blew up],” said Noco’s attorney, former U.S. Attorney Terrance P. Flynn of the Harris Beach law firm.
“It was disconnected by somebody other than us, and now we know who that was.”
“He’s a professional pipe fitter. I’ve never questioned his abilities or his skills,” said Sam Parise, Jody Johnson’s boss at Parise Mechanical in the Town of Tonawanda.
“The basis of liability is that [Noco] did not provide proper warning under the circumstances and cause further steps to be taken,” Beck said Monday.
He said Noco’s customer service worker, who spoke to Judith Johnson on the telephone, “should have treated the situation as an emergency, should have warned them, ‘Call your local fire department, don’t activate the system, don’t use any appliances that create sparks, don’t do anything.’ They downplayed the situation [and] led my clients into a false sense of safety.”
The suit says Jody Johnson was called at work July 23 and told of the odor. He directed his daughter Hannah to turn off the Noco tank. Judith Johnson, 46, later checked to see that Hannah had done that correctly and concluded that she had.
She then called Noco and got an answering service, which contacted the company. A Noco representative called back, and she told him of the odor and that the propane tank was nearly empty.
The service representative, who is not named in the lawsuit, reportedly said the odorant added to the gas becomes stronger when the supply level is low. The Noco staffer never warned that the situation should be considered dangerous, the suit asserts. That omission constitutes negligence leading to Sarah’s wrongful death, the plaintiffs charge.
The Noco worker did tell Judith Johnson that Noco would not deliver more propane “until satisfactory credit and payment arrangements were made,” the lawsuit said. By that time, the billing office was closed. That’s when Jody Johnson disconnected the Noco tank and hooked up his own.
The investigation of exactly what sparked the blast is still incomplete, Beck said.
Capt. Kristen Neubauer, head of the criminal investigation unit at the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, said the office will not publicly release its files on the blast, but they have been shared with the attorneys in the suit.