Atmos Energy files lawsuit asking to be freed from liability in Fort Worth hotel explosion – The Dallas Morning News

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Atmos Energy is seeking to absolve itself of legal responsibility related to the gas explosion at a downtown Fort Worth hotel earlier this month.

The Jan. 8 explosion at the Sandman Hotel, in the 800 block of Houston Street, rocked the downtown area. Twenty-one people were hurt, including four whose injuries were serious, according to authorities.

Multiple people affected by the blast have sued Atmos Energy and the hotel’s owner, Northland Developments Inc. Atmos said that as of Friday, it had been sued by 33 plaintiffs in nine lawsuits related to the explosion, according to a lawsuit filed in Tarrant County.

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“In addition to the lawsuits that have already been filed, Northland’s insurer has made various demands on Atmos Energy through its Claims Department and has stated it ‘intend[s] to hold the culpable party responsible,’” the lawsuit states.

Northland did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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According to Atmos’ lawsuit, the natural gas utility is seeking a declaratory judgment that would prevent it from being liable or responsible for loss or damage resulting from the explosion.

Additionally, it is asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent Northland and any other associated parties from taking “any action that would alter, modify, or destroy any condition or item currently existing within the basement area of the Hotel, except as necessary to make the premises structurally safe for inspection.”

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The suit also seeks the preservation of equipment, videos, photos and communications related to the explosion, as well as documents related to the hotel’s gas-line repairs and installations.

Atmos’ lawyers are seeking an emergency motion for expedited discovery to allow the company to further “inspect” and gather evidence from the hotel premises.

The temporary restraining order, if granted, would be in effect through March 31 or through completion of the inspection Atmos requested through the emergency motion, according to the lawsuit.

“The evidence that will ultimately show the source of the gas leak that caused the explosion is located somewhere within the Hotel, which is controlled, either directly or indirectly, by Northland,” the lawsuit states. “Because that evidence is expected to demonstrate that Northland or its affiliates, tenants, or subtenants bear legal responsibility for the explosion, they have little incentive to proactively preserve or protect the critical evidence from spoilation or to cooperate with or permit Atmos Energy and the other claimants to participate in the investigation and collection of that evidence.”

Atmos’ lawsuit also provided more information about the company’s response to the explosion.

Shortly before 3:19 p.m., someone contacted the company’s emergency line and reported that they “may have a leak” and “seemed concerned that appliances may be operating nearby,” the lawsuit states, adding that the caller gave the Atmos representative the hotel’s address.

The representative asked the caller to follow emergency precautions, “including evacuating the building and staying clear of the area,” the lawsuit states.

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“The caller expressly acknowledged that he understood the safety precautions that needed to be taken. It is unknown whether the caller took any steps to heed the warnings provided by Atmos Energy,” the lawsuit states.

After the explosion, which occurred at about 3:30 p.m., Atmos crews shut off gas to the hotel “as a safety precaution,” the lawsuit states.

Crews found no evidence of leaks in Atmos Energy’s systems that could have led to the explosion, but the company found “gas consumption data” from the hotel that indicated a gas leak “may have started inside the Hotel from the gas lines or appliances that are owned, operated and maintained by Northland as early as sometime between 1-2 p.m.,” the lawsuit states.

Fort Worth Fire Department officials have said they believe the explosion stemmed from a gas leak in the hotel’s basement. They said there’s no evidence that criminal activity or terrorism was involved.

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A 2018 Dallas Morning News report examined multiple gas leak incidents that injured or killed people in North Texas involving Atmos Energy, as well as the response of the Railroad Commission of Texas, the agency charged with ensuring gas companies operate safely.

Staff writer Kevin Krause contributed to this report.

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