On task-- Attorney takes the lead in house explosion case

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

Some three weeks after a natural gas explosion leveled a house in Royal Oak, killing the 58-year-old homeowner, attorney Stuart Sklar was back at the scene of the blast, coordinating a "fact-finding mission" on Tuesday and Wednesday that he hopes will shed further light on the cause of the tragedy that has shaken residents across Oakland County.

Sklar, who has earned a national reputation as an authority on fire and explosion litigation issues, is representing the family of Daniel Malczynski, the retired General Motors worker killed in the February 27 blast.

A partner with the Farmington Hills firm of Fabian Sklar & King, Sklar has developed such an expertise in the fire and explosion investigative field that two days after the blast he was placed in charge of the scene by the local fire marshal, an unusual vote of confidence for someone so tied to the ultimate outcome of the investigation.

"It speaks volumes about Stuart's reputation that the fire marshal would, in effect, turn over the blast scene to him to determine the cause of this tragedy," said Michael Fabian, the founding partner of the firm headquartered near the corner of W. 12 Mile and Farmington roads. "But that is how highly regarded Stuart is in this field. He has a reputation for honesty and integrity, and everyone who knows him values his commitment to determine the truth."

His determination was evident on Tuesday, as Sklar and dozens of other investigators combed through the rubble of the Royal Oak site, searching for clues as to what triggered the blast that flattened the Malczynski home and reportedly damaged more than 30 other houses in the neighborhood south of 14 Mile Road and east of Woodward Avenue. Unseasonably cold temperatures spiced with intermittent snow added to the challenge for investigators, which included representatives from Consumers Energy, the Michigan Public Service Commission, the Oakland County Sheriff's Department, the Royal Oak Fire Department, and various insurance companies.

"Obviously, this can't be your first rodeo when the fire marshal asks you to assume control of the scene," Sklar said during an interview at his office on Monday.

"We have invited all of the interested parties in this case to the scene so that they have an opportunity to see it first-hand, to take photographs and measurements, and to get an overview of what we have learned to date. On Wednesday, we will have an expert on horizontal directional drilling at the site to document the scene and to gather facts regarding how the drilling was being performed."

Sklar is a national authority on "Management of Complex Investigations." In fact, he helped write a chapter on the subject for the most recent edition of the "Guide for Fire & Explosion Investigations" for the National Fire Protection Association. The 341-page handbook is widely viewed as the bible for fire investigators, providing guidance that is based on "accepted scientific principles or scientific research," according to Sklar.

While the cause of the Royal Oak explosion is under investigation, Sklar did indicate that the blast has been traced to a natural gas leak in a line operated by Consumers Energy. A work crew from the utility was replacing a gas main pipeline in the Cooper Street neighborhood earlier in the day via horizontal directional drilling, Sklar said.

Last week, Consumers Energy announced that it had fired an undisclosed number of employees for "failure to follow established policies and procedures" in connection with the explosion incident, a move that only prompted more questions from Sklar.

"What needs to be answered is whether the policies and procedures were adequate in the first place," Sklar said. "It's easy to say that the workers didn't follow the guidelines, but what if the guidelines are inadequate? If it is determined that the policies and procedures are not up to recognized standards, then any mistakes made by the work crew are only part of the story."

The scope of the story, of course, is framed in tragedy for the Malcynski family, particularly the victim's three daughters, his mother, and brother.

"Mr. Malcynski was a longtime union representative at GM and had been retired for around two years when this happened," Sklar said. "His life ended in an instant and the lives of his family have been forever altered. His three daughters grew up in that house and one can only imagine how hard it is for them to see what remains of it now. It's an unspeakable tragedy for everyone concerned."

And it could have been far worse, Sklar indicated.

"Our preliminary investigation has determined that the work crew missed hitting other gas lines by inches while they were drilling," Sklar said. "In effect, it appears as if they were drilling blindly. Who knows how much worse this could have been if other lines had been damaged by the drilling."

Sklar, a Michigan State University grad who earned his juris doctor from the former Detroit College of Law, said investigators are trying to determine the "path of the gas migration" and how it infiltrated into Malcynski's house.

"The gas could have entered through a drain or a crack in the foundation, and any number of things could have served to ignite the explosion," Sklar said. "A pilot light could have touched it off, a furnace kicking on, lighting a match, any number of things. It will almost be impossible to determine the igniter."

Sklar said that several of the neighbors who have been interviewed said they did not detect any gas smell before the explosion occurred.

"That is not unusual," he said. "Gas that has been leaking underground can have its odorant scrubbed out as it migrates through the soil," he explained. "Obviously, there had been a tremendous build up of natural gas to cause the kind of damage that occurred here."

The explosion, Sklar said, is reminiscent of a case in which his firm represented the plaintiffs involved in a 2006 blast that killed a Detroit area couple. In that case, a summer resort in Ellison Bay, Wis. was rocked by a series of explosions that destroyed three buildings and heavily damaged nine others.

The explosions were traced to an underground propane gas line that had been severed several days earlier by a contractor upgrading electrical service to docks at the Door County resort. A $21 million settlement eventually was reached in the Wisconsin case, which also spawned the passage of state legislation that requires the pinpointing of underground propane lines on all regulatory maps.

"Horizontal directional drilling again was involved, although in the Wisconsin case the contractor was not aware a gas line was there because it did not show up on any maps," Sklar said.

"What has become evident with this case in Royal Oak is that every person who lives or works near gas lines has their safety in the hands of the company," he proclaimed. "Their gas lines are everywhere we go and are a potential powder keg if mistakes are made and leaks occur. This is why it is so important that we determine exactly what happened, and then put measures in place to ensure that it never happens again."

Published: Thu, Mar 28, 2013