By MICHAEL RUBINKAM Associated Press
A Pennsylvania candy-maker ignored warnings of a natural gas leak at its chocolate factory and bears responsibility for a subsequent explosion that killed seven workers and injured several others, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The family of Judith “Judy” Lopez-Moran, a 55-year-old mother of three, filed what their lawyers called the first wrongful-death suit against R.M. Palmer Co. after the March 24 blast in West Reading.
Workers smelled natural gas that day and notified Palmer, but the 75-year-old, family-owned company “did nothing,” the lawsuit said.
“The gas leak at the factory and the horrific explosion it caused was foreseeable, predictable, and preventable,” the suit said. “Tragically, Judith Lopez-Moran’s death and suffering were preventable.”
The lawsuit, filed in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, also names gas utility UGI, which declined comment. A message was sent to Palmer seeking comment.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the explosion, which leveled a building in the factory complex and damaged several other buildings in West Reading, a small town 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Philadelphia.
Federal safety officials previously confirmed they were studying the role of a natural gas pipeline in the blast. The National Transportation Safety Board has called what happened a natural gas explosion and fire, citing preliminary information from local authorities and the utility about the pipeline.
Palmer officials should have evacuated immediately after being told of the natural gas odor but instead “made a representation to the factory workers, including Judith Lopez-Moran, that the factory was safe and that there was no gas leak,” the suit said.
Palmer, according to the suit, “intended to mislead the factory workers … so that the factory workers would continue working and so that factory downtime would be minimized.”
Patricia Borges, who survived the blast and was a friend and co-worker of Lopez-Moran, previously recounted how her arm caught fire as flames engulfed the building. She then fell through the floor into a vat of liquid chocolate. Borges told The Associated Press how she and others had complained about a natural gas odor about 30 minutes before the factory blew up.
Palmer has offered condolences but has otherwise said little since the explosion.
The law firm representing Lopez-Moran’s family, Saltz Mongeluzzi Bendesky, said it represents more than a dozen victims of the explosion.
The firm’s investigation, in part, will seek to determine whether UGI’s meters had signaled a leak in the pipeline and whether soil around the pipeline was discolored, indicative of a gas leak, said the family’s attorney, Andrew Duffy.
“We hope to use the lawsuit to find out exactly what our family wants us to find out, which is what happened, who should be held accountable, and most important to them, how to prevent this from happening to any other family ever again,” Duffy said in an interview.