Apr. 2002 – Trial begins in deadly house explosion

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QC Times. QC Staff Writer. April 1, 2002.

Trial begins in deadly house explosion

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Jury selection began Monday in a lawsuit over a house explosion that killed seven people on Labor Day 1999.

The case concerns a propane explosion that leveled Jerry and Juanita Usovsky's home in the southeast Iowa town of Richland during a family barbecue. Jerry Usovsky's wife and daughter were among the dead.

The lawsuit is the final piece of a legal battle between the families and the companies blamed for the explosion.Six others were injured in the explosion on Sept. 6, 1999.

Court documents describe the case as potentially the largest personal injury case in Iowa history. According to court documents, the plaintiffs could split as much as $40 million once the trial is done, although out-of-court settlements likely will cut that number by as much as half.

Don Beattie, lawyer for survivors and families, said settlement deals also have made small progress in forcing new safety measures on the companies that sell propane and propane-using appliances.

"They've went from the point of just telling somebody about gas detectors to suggesting that people purchase them,'' Beattie said.

Everyone now agrees that Jerry Usovsky caused the leak. Authorities say he accidentally gouged a propane line the day before the explosion while driving posts for a new dog pen in the back yard.

Survivors argue, however, that the blast never would have occurred if the companies that deal in propane and propane appliances had used proper care.

The lawsuit argues that the businesses failed to properly warn Usovsky about propane's inherent dangers.

Court papers argue that the companies should have known that ethyl mercaptan, a chemical added to the gas to give it an odor, doesn't always warn consumers of leaks. Plaintiffs say the propane, which is heavier than air, pooled in the basement until it ignited.

``Our experts (were) going to say that the gas suppliers should not supply this dangerous product unless they supply and install gas detectors in consumer homes,'' Beattie said. ``At the very least, they should have to tell consumers how dangerous it is not to have gas detectors installed.''

Iowa Double Circle, the propane retailer, settled with plaintiffs in March. Four other propane companies -- Country Energy, Farmland Industries, Cenex Harvest States Cooperative and Mid-America Pipeline Co. -- followed suit.

Maytag, maker of a propane-using range in the home, settled on Friday.

No exact settlement amounts were made public last week, although court papers say Usovsky's insurance company settled with the survivors for roughly $1.3 million last year.

Monday's trial was to focus only on Lennox Industries, maker of the furnace in Usovsky's home. Testimony could last as long as a month.