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Home / Construction / Insurer sues over church explosion in Oconomowoc (UPDATE)

Insurer sues over church explosion in Oconomowoc (UPDATE)

By Sean Ryan

The insurer that paid $1.85 million when the First Baptist Church of Oconomowoc blew up last year is suing three companies involved in the explosion.

Church Mutual Insurance Co., Merrill, this week sued Dorner Inc., Luxemburg; Acuity, A Mutual Insurance Co., Sheboygan; and We Energies, claiming the three companies are responsible for the April 2008 explosion. It is the second lawsuit filed by an insurance company over the incident.

Church Mutual’s insurance policy paid out to the First Baptist Church after a gas leak resulted in an explosion that blew up the church and three houses, two of which were owned by the church.

The gas leak started after Dorner employees used an excavator to move an unmarked underground gas pipe while rebuilding West Wisconsin Avenue in Oconomowoc. We Energies owned the gas pipe, but the line was not in service and did not appear on utility maps, according to Church Mutual’s legal complaint.

As attorneys wrestle over who is to blame for the explosion, the First Baptist Church has its $1.85 million insurance payment and is staying out of the legal debates.

“It hasn’t been spent, no,” said the Rev Sam Brink, a transition pastor at First Baptist. “We’re not creative enough to spend it that quickly.”

Brink said Thursday morning he was not aware of the Church Mutual lawsuit, and his church is not involved.

The Church Mutual lawsuit argues Dorner should pay because its employees moved the underground pipe without confirming the existence of gas in the pipe. According to the lawsuit, Dorner also should pay because company employees called We Energies, instead of the local fire department, when the leak was discovered.

The utility is to blame because it did not keep accurate records and did not call the fire department, according to the lawsuit.

State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., Bloomington, Ill., made similar accusations when it sued Dorner, Acuity and We Energies in June. State Farm insured the people living in the three houses that blew up. The case is still open.

Irissol Arce, We Energies spokeswoman, said Thursday morning the utility’s attorneys had not been served with the Church Mutual lawsuit and could not comment on the charges before reading them.

Lance Grady, attorney representing Dorner and Acuity, said all of the parties are trying to reach a settlement before the State Farm and Church Mutual cases go to jury trial. He said the cases are complicated and probably won’t be settled until next year.

“Attempts are being made by all parties to try to resolve this thing,” Grady said.

The First Baptist Church is in no hurry to decide its future, Brink said. The church moved to the former Ixonia Town Hall and uses the building for church services, he said.

Brink said the congregation has not decided if the Ixonia building will become a permanent home. The church still owns the now-vacant downtown Oconomowoc property on Wisconsin Avenue, but, he said, there are no plans to rebuild on or sell the land.

“We’re very happy out in Ixonia,” Brink said, “and we’re doing fine out there. The move went well.”

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