Should a case involving the loss of life be labeled a success story by a law firm?
Many people’s first reaction would be that any association between death and victory in a legal proceeding is insensitive—especially when the defendant is the business entity that was owned by the person who died.
How to address such a situation in a sensitive way, while also acting as a determined advocate for the client, is the challenge that was front and center for Cramer & Anderson partner D. Randall DiBella in a high-profile case that resulted in a successful outcome in November 2015.
It’s a case that resulted from an accident that made national news and drew network news crews from New York City to Litchfield County, the fatal explosion that destroyed a house in New Milford, Conn., on Aug. 29, 2012. One neighbor likened the early evening blast to an “A-bomb” in a television interview, and all that remained standing of the house was its chimney.
In the end, Attorney DiBella secured a $650,000 settlement for the homeowner, John Wilkinson, who was seriously injured when a gas leak that resulted from the installation of a new hot water heater led to the explosion, which killed the plumber who was called back to the site to address the smell of gas, Anthony James Fratino III, 47, of New Milford. (Wilkinson vs. Fratino Plumbing, Litchfield Superior Court LLI-CV-13-6009649-S)
After smelling gas, John Wilkinson had sent his sons, Jake and Everett, to a neighbor’s house. His wife, Alice, who was pregnant at the time, wasn’t home.
Tony Fratino had brought his son Nicholas to the Wilkinson house. He was in the yard at the time of the explosion and was seriously injured.
The Wilkinsons’ home was replaced by their homeowners insurance, and John Wilkinson sued Fratino Plumbing, LLC, the company of the deceased contractor who was known for being active in the town’s youth soccer program and the men’s softball and football leagues.
“That was one of the toughest challenges beyond the technical aspect in this case,” Attorney DiBella said of the tragic circumstances. “When we’re pointing a finger at somebody it’s a very, very delicate exercise. It is never lost on me that we’re dealing with the human condition. We don’t do a scorched earth protocol here. We have to balance the client’s need for redress, and to be made whole, while maintaining some measure of humanity during the litigation process.”
What the house explosion case came down to, Attorney DiBella said, was this: “A man was injured and his home was lost. It wasn’t a matter of assigning blame for the sake of blame. It was a matter of making him whole.”
Alice Wilkinson called Cramer & Anderson the day after the explosion.
As the law firm’s investigation unfolded, it became clear that the “hyper technical case” would focus on demonstrating that the explosion stemmed from the work of the plumbing company.
“And you need to do that in a very, very methodical way,” Attorney DiBella stressed, while explaining, “We immediately hired fire scene experts and explosive scene experts,” and they were on the scene with Cramer & Anderson partner Dan Casagrande the day after the explosion.
Retained by the homeowner’s insurer, New England Fire Service from New Hampshire inventoried and received permission to take custody of pieces of the debris, and assisted the Connecticut State Police in the investigation.
“Then we pursued the case in the normal course, as aggressively as we could given the circumstances,” Attorney DiBella said. “We filed the lawsuit when we were convinced of the origin of this explosion.”
As part of that long, rigorous process, defective equipment and other potential causes were ruled out—and a situation previously unknown to the Wilkinson family was discovered.
“We came to an inferential conclusion, based upon how a manifold of the gas line was constructed, that there were two gas lines into the basement,” Attorney DiBella explained. “We learned anecdotally that one of them had been hooked up to a gas dryer before the Wilkinsons moved into the house.”
In addition to a valve being opened to allow gas to flow to the newly installed hot water heater, another previously closed valve on the preexisting gas line was also opened, allowing gas to flow into the basement.
“Deposition testimony confirmed what we had earlier concluded: That it had to have been a plumbing company employee who opened the valve. It couldn’t have been anyone else on site,” Attorney DiBella said. The State Building Code requires contractors to ensure all gas lines in structures reach a terminus, such as an appliance, or are properly capped.
“The cause of the leak was identified as an open, abandoned LP-Gas line that was not properly capped after a LP-Gas dryer was removed from the home approximately nine years prior to the incident,” a State Police news release said in August, 2013, in announcing that the explosion was ruled an accident. “The LP-Gas line valve was inadvertently opened by contractors during the installation of a LP-Gas hot water heater and upgrading of the LP-Gas piping system, allowing LP-Gas to flow freely into the basement area. Upon investigation of the odor of LP-Gas by the homeowner and the contractor, an unidentified ignition source initiated the catastrophic explosion.”
The insurance company for Fratino Plumbing alleged at one point that John Wilkinson was the responsible party, for leading Tony Fratino into a basement filled with gas.
The case was settled late last year in a full-day mediation session before the Honorable Jonathan E. Silbert, a mediator and retired judge.
The Wilkinsons’ house, in a pretty rural spot near the Sunny Valley Preserve, was rebuilt with funds provided by the family’s insurer, which was also reimbursed separately by the plumbing company’s insurer for the property loss damages it had paid.
John Wilkinson has a disability affecting his knee, but his burns and injuries from the explosion have been completely resolved.
“He’s doing very well. His emotional state is excellent,” said Attorney DiBella. “We’ve become very close. He was here the other day shooting the breeze.”
As much as Attorney DiBella takes pride in guiding the case to a successful outcome, he’s keenly aware of the need to treat every case with sensitivity—which meant respecting the gravity of the situation for Tony Fratino’s family and friends, while achieving redress for the harm caused to the Wilkinson family.
“When somebody comes to you after a catastrophic injury, they don’t want to be here,” Attorney DiBella said. “The fact is they come to me because something happened as a result of wrongful conduct. My job is to seek redress, but to do that while preserving their dignity.”
“The origin of the civil justice system is humanity, to make us whole,” he added. “It’s an absolute right.”
Attorney DiBella’s areas of expertise include personal injury law, civil litigation, municipal law, land use and environmental law, and appellate litigation. He is based in Cramer & Anderson’s New Milford office, located at 51 Main St., and may be reached at (860) 355-2631.