As the M’s Pub fire approaches its fourth anniversary, one thing is more clear than ever: The legal battles will be complex and expensive.
Roughly two dozen lawyers filled a Douglas County District courtroom last week for a hearing on a procedural matter in several of the cases. The lawyers represented people whose property was damaged in the fire, contractors, insurance companies and the Metropolitan Utilities District.
There have been about 100 depositions in the case; one attorney estimated that the fees for the attorneys in the room reached $10,000 per deposition.
A total of 15 cases were filed and have been consolidated with Judge Timothy Burns. (One case, from the City of Omaha, has been dismissed, and the city has been dismissed as a party in all cases.) Burns and possibly a jury will be tasked with determining who was at fault for the fire, who is owed money from those at fault and how much they are owed.
A key question to be sorted out is whether ratepayer-owned MUD is to blame for not marking or improperly marking underground natural gas lines. The fire started as a fiber-optic contractor was drilling beneath the streets and sidewalks.
The utility’s attorney says MUD “looks forward to the opportunity to present our story and set the facts straight.”
The January 2016 fire started in the basement of M’s Pub, an Old Market fixture that dates to the early 1970s.
The fire did not cause any deaths or serious injuries, but it destroyed the historic building that housed M’s, the next-door retail shop Nouvelle Eve and upstairs condos. The result gutted the heart of Omaha’s Old Market district and left the area cordoned off for months as workers investigated the fire and rebuilt the building.
Because MUD is a public entity, state law says the utility will be liable for at most $5 million for the whole incident, with a cap of $1 million to any one party.
Also because of state law regarding public entities, the judge will decide the portion of the cases that involve MUD while a jury could make the decision on the lawsuits against the private companies.
Some but not all of the parties have settled, meaning that all plaintiffs may not always be aligned against all defendants on every point.
That means at the trial there will be dozens of parties trying to show different things about one another, in some cases, to a different decision-maker.
“It’s going to be a three-ring circus,” said Tom White, an attorney for M’s Pub.
White told the court that a central question for his clients will be whether gas was coming in to M’s for more than an hour as MUD workers tried to shut a gas line off and whether or not the fire could have been contained had the gas been shut off faster.
He said the damages could total as much as $30 million.
Some, including the state fire marshal, have suggested that MUD improperly marked the gas line that was hit.
Mark Mendenhall, the general counsel for MUD, said the entity so far has spent roughly $1.2 million on legal fees and other expenses for the case.
He said the utility will show that the gas line was appropriately marked and that after the line was struck, the gas vented away from the building.
Plaintiffs in the other cases include Nouvelle Eve, condo owners and the late Mark Mercer along with his wife and management company, which owns the building.
Other than MUD, defendants include North Central Service, which was hired to install fiber-optic cable; Kansas City company Unite Private Networks, which hired them; and telecom giant Verizon, which hired Unite.
Several insurance companies that cover various parties have their own lawsuits or are part of others’ cases.
The hearing Thursday centered on a procedural issue: what information from workers at the scene needs to be provided to each of the parties in order for the case to proceed.
Burns also scheduled a tentative date for the trial to start: May 4, 2020. He set aside the whole month.