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Remaining defendants in JJ’s explosion trial point fingers

Allyssa D. Dudley//July 21, 2015//

Remaining defendants in JJ’s explosion trial point fingers

Allyssa D. Dudley//July 21, 2015//

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Why did a popular downtown Kansas City wine bar, co-owned by a prominent Kansas City attorney, turn into a bomb? Attorneys for the plaintiffs and two separate defendants laid out their theories to a Jackson County jury during opening statements Tuesday and Wednesday for a trial that could turn out to be lengthy.

JJ’s Restaurant, co-owned by Stinson Leonard Street partner and real estate practice division co-chair Dave Frantze and his brother, Jimmy Frantze, was leveled in a Feb. 19, 2013 blast resulting from a build-up of gas from a ruptured main outside the building, the suit alleged.

Heartland Midwest, an Olathe, Kansas-based company, had been contracted by Time Warner to complete some horizontal directional drilling in preparation for the laying of fiber optic cables, according to court documents. USIC had been hired to mark the underground utilities, which were owned by Missouri Gas Energy.

USIC employee Kevin Goucher had marked the utilities several days prior to Heartland’s beginning work on the project. Goucher had been with the company for nearly 20 years, attorney for USIC David Helms of Lewis Rice in Kansas City said, and frequently had worked in the Plaza area, where JJ’s was located.

Although Goucher marked the location of the gas line, and an electrical line, the depth of those lines were not marked, an attorney for Time Warner, Frederick K. Starrett of Douthit Frets Rouse Gentile & Rhodes in Kansas City, said during opening statements.

But that shouldn’t have mattered, Helms said. It was Heartland that had fallen down on the job by not visually checking for underground utilities before drilling, as their own safety manual would have them do. Heartland was dismissed from the suit on April 23.

“The case should be about why that restaurant turned into a bomb,” Helms said.

Gas leaked into the air, and flowed into JJ’s and neighboring buildings. An inspector for Missouri Gas Energy was repeatedly told by restaurant employees that there was a smell of gas in the restaurant. He told them repeatedly to go back inside and wait, Starrett said.

Here, Starrett and Helms seemed to agree; MGE did not follow proper safety procedures, or act with a sense of urgency, when responding to the notification of a gas leak. Earlier this year, the Missouri Public Service Commission approved a nonmonetary settlement with MGE that requires it to change its emergency evacuation procedures. They were dismissed from this suit with prejudice Nov. 3.

That leaves Time Warner and USIC pointing fingers at one another, and less vigorously, at JJ’s employees. The suit seeks millions of dollars for property damage and the loss of what the petition said was “one of the most extensive wine collections in North America.”

Both Starrett and Helms took issue with the millions of dollars in damages claimed by the plaintiffs. JJ’s had been operating at a loss from at least 2007 to 2012, Helms said, and Starrett questioned the value of that extensive wine collection.

This suit is separate from a series of suits filed by people injured in the blast. A wrongful death suit from the family of Megan Cramer, a server at the bar who was killed in the explosion, settled last year for an undisclosed sum.

The case is JJ’s Bar and Grill et al. v. Southern Union Company et al., 1316-CV11288.

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