In Re: Columbia Gas Cases, Superior Court of Massachusetts, Civil Action No. 1877CV01343G
On September 13, 2018, an over-pressurization event led to devastating gas explosions, and fires impacted residents and businesses across Lawrence, Andover and North Andover, Massachusetts. The event caused significant personal injury, property damage, business interruption and other damage to area residents. Columbia Gas of Massachusetts (Columbia Gas) created a $143 million settlement fund that was used to compensate people and businesses for losses resulting from the event. Columbia Gas denies legal responsibility for these losses.
Kroll’s Settlement Administration and Notice Media practices were hired to provide direct notice and publication notice, conduct community outreach, and open a claim center to provide notice and claims filing assistance to class members.
Handling Complex Settlement Administration and Distributions
The three communities impacted by the explosions were highly diverse socioeconomically, and factors such as language, income, immigrant status and education needed to be considered when designing the notice and administration program as well as distribution methods. Additionally, many residents were forced to relocate to neighboring communities.
Andover and North Andover are affluent towns, with average household incomes over $200,000, and English is the main language. Conversely, the poverty rate in Lawrence is nearly 22%, with household incomes averaging $44,000, and over 71% of its residents speak Spanish. Many Lawrence residents were foreign born, largely from the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
All of these factors influenced how administration and notice to class members were managed and implemented so residents and businesses could easily file claims to receive compensation. The array of losses this community experienced led to the establishment of sub-classes including residents; businesses; loss of enjoyment, loss of earnings, relocation, and migration; loss of personal or business property; and extra expenses, loss of goodwill, and loss of business income.
Effective Legal Notice Media Plan Reaching Sensitive Class Members
To provide direct notice, Kroll individual/residential and commercial/business searches for addresses in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. Kroll provided notice and claim form packages in English and Spanish to:
- 50,500 unique residential addresses
- 41,500 unique business names and addresses
When the claim filing deadline was extended, Kroll mailed a second round of notices to over 49,500 residential addresses in the class area to educate residents about the extension.
To supplement the postcard mailings, we disseminated plain language graphical, color flyers with the claim center information to the class area and to several nonprofit community groups.
Supplemental Publication Notice
To provide notice to class members for whom no mailing address was available, and to reach those who had relocated, an extensive supplemental publication notice plan was implemented in English and Spanish. The plan involved a multi-faceted approach that included a hyper-local strategy for message development and media selection as well as establishment of a local claims facility.
When developing the supplemental publication notice plan, our experts took into consideration potential barriers concerning trust, language, and media use. The plan included local television, local radio, local newspaper, banner ads, search engine ads, social media, press releases, community outreach via town hall meetings and flyer distribution to local groups.
We used television to provide a broad umbrella of awareness and to optimize all other media channels. For two weeks, approximately 537 English and Spanish commercials aired across ABC, CBS, NBC and independent local affiliates in the Boston designated market area as well as Andover, North Andover and Lawrence specifically.
We also aired commercials on radio, which is hyper-localized media where various formats can reach highly nuanced audiences:
- Approximately 164 sixty-second English commercials aired on four stations across the broader Boston market.
- 135 sixty-second English and Spanish commercials aired on three stations in Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and surrounding communities.
- An additional 94 sixty-second English and Spanish commercials aired on two stations across the broader Boston market to announce the extended claims deadlines and town hall meetings.
Print ads ran eight times in the main news section of four local newspapers, in English and Spanish.
Online display ads were geographically focused to serve ads to households, businesses and people within the affected areas. Ads were also served to known class members through a tactic called matching.
Social media ads, on Facebook and Instagram, were served to potential and known class members, friends, family and the surrounding community. Ads were also served to:
- Adults in the affected ZIP codes
- Top employers in the affected communities
- People who engaged with content related to the explosions, followers of community crisis organizations, and disaster relief pages
On Twitter, ads were targeted to adults 18 and older in the Boston designated market area who had tweeted about the explosion or used relevant hashtags. We added an additional social media campaign targeting those 18 and older to generate awareness about the extended claims deadlines and town hall meetings.
Press releases were issued to all general media in the area, with additional press releases issued to a custom list of 545 reporters and media outlets located in the Lawrence, Andover and North Andover area to generate awareness about the extended claims deadlines and town hall meetings.
Unique Settlement Administration Processes
Kroll established a local claim center in the impacted area to provide support to potential class members with questions and concerns about the claim filing process. Taking into consideration Lawrence’s large immigrant population and predominantly Spanish-speaking population, we utilized a high degree of sensitivity and assistance to help people clearly understand the complexities and benefits under the settlement and the claim process. As a convenience, the center was established in Andover, since this location was centrally located to all three towns, provided free parking and was easily accessible by public transportation.
Kroll staffed the facility Monday through Friday from November 4, 2019, through January 31, 2020, and assisted approximately 30 class members per day with the claims filing process.
The settlement’s notice and outreach program is by far the most far-reaching and comprehensive notice program I have seen over the course of my career.
Partner, Baily Glasser LLP (Plaintiff’s Attorney, In Re: Columbia Gas Cases)
Town Hall Meetings
Class counsel held six town hall meetings to further assist residents and help them better understand their claims filing options. Members of our team also assisted class members with any questions about the claims filing process.
Kroll, alongside class counsel and community organizations, held three Claim Fairs hosted at a local technical college in Lawrence. There were over 30 stations staffed by both English and Spanish speakers, set up to answer questions and assist class members. We assisted over 1,000 class members during the Claim Fairs.
Kroll also maintained close contact with local politicians and nonprofit community groups to ensure residents had access to services and were provided with answers to their questions about completing the claim filing process.
Claims Processing and Allocation
For residential claims, a lump sum allocation plan considered six categories of information. The six categories were listed on the claim form, and points were assigned to each category depending on the answers.
The six categories were:
- Geographic location to the “impact zone”
- Length of time displaced from home and/or without full natural gas services, whichever is later
- Number of adults in the home
- Age of the adults in the home
- Number of children in the home
- Property damage (e.g., smoke, water, fire or structural) to the home
As an example, an average family of four (two adults, two minor children) living within the “impact zone” that was displaced from home and/or lost natural gas services for 60 days received an estimated 25 points under this allocation system. The value of each point was $375.
Commercial claims submitted by businesses in the class area were required to submit itemized claims for loss of inventory, extra operating expenses, and loss of business revenue. All commercial claims were subject to manual review for compensation in accordance with the total amount of documented, unreimbursed losses. Approximately 500 commercial claimants were paid a total of $11.4 million.
Multi-Language Claims Process
In addition to a multilingual notice plan, Kroll developed and hosted complete English and Spanish versions of the settlement website with online claim filing capabilities, access to key court documents, and up-to-date answers to frequently asked questions. Notice and claim form materials were also translated into Vietnamese, as well as other languages upon request.
Our team also established and operated a contact center with a toll-free phone number that included a combination of interactive voice response (IVR), and English and Spanish speaking live operators.
Verification and Deficiency Curing
In the notification process, all notices were addressed to “Resident” and did not include individual names. The claims process required class members self-identifying as a resident or business owner at the time of the gas explosion to provide a proof of residency. Our team spent one year verifying over 10,000 proofs of residency.
In addition to claims validation, Kroll spent a significant amount of time curing proof-of-residency deficiencies, working with claimants, local community organizations and politicians’ office staff, who were also assisting claimants to cure deficient claims.
Our team established, publicized, staffed, and operated a local claims facility to assist class members with claims and answer questions, in addition to the usual notice and administration duties expected of a settlement administrator.
The Columbia Gas explosion settlement in Massachusetts demonstrates Kroll’s ability to provide a holistic, highly customized approach to notice and administration that starts with research consultation and strategy. Kroll was able to deploy the teams and resources necessary to provide a personalized, hands-on approach to ensure the successful administration of this extremely complex class action matter.