CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE A month after they were pulled from the wreckage when their Cape May County home exploded, James and Evelyn McCarty are suing a contractor and propane company, contending that they failed to remove or properly disconnect a large propane tank that caused the blast.
The McCartys, represented by the Philadelphia-based Kline & Specter law firm, filed the suit Wednesday in Superior Court. They ask for a jury trial as they seek damages including medical expenses, pain and suffering, and "extensive property damage."
South Jersey Fuel & Propane and Shore Guys Heating & Air Conditioning L.L.C. are defendants.
An explosion Nov. 7 leveled the McCarty home in the Villas section of Lower Township. Neighbors rushed in to pull the two residents out. They were airlifted in critical condition to Crozer-Chester Medical Center, where they were treated in the burn unit.
The next day, investigators said the blast and resulting fire were caused by a propane tank. The initial investigation did not make clear what caused propane to leak.
In their suit, the McCartys say South Jersey Fuel left the tank on their property after they canceled their account this year. They had decided to convert their home to natural gas as part of a promotion by South Jersey Gas Co., according to the suit.
South Jersey Fuel owned the tank and did not retrieve it, said Shanin Specter, one of the lawyers representing the McCartys.
South Jersey Fuel did not return messages for comment.
In June, at the recommendation of South Jersey Gas, the McCartys hired Shore Guys to convert their home to natural gas, the lawsuit reads.
Instead of locking the pipes from the propane tank or tagging the tank to warn that it was disconnected, the lawsuit contends, Shore Guys cut the pipes under the home and "simply turned the valve on the top of the tank to the closed position."
That was the wrong way to go, Specter said Wednesday.
"Technicians for Shore Guys should have disabled the propane tank, or they should have put a tag on the tanks which says, 'Don't turn on. Danger.' Or the tank should have been removed," Specter said.
"There are lots of ways that you could avoid the risk here. The thing you don't want to do is cut the line such that if the tank is turned on, the gas will then leak, especially when it's done underneath the house so that people don't know it's been done. . . . There were lots of things that were done wrong here."
Shore Guys did not return messages for comment.
When the fireplace would not light Nov. 6, according to the lawsuit, the McCartys reached out to a neighbor, who saw the closed valve on the propane tank and turned it open.
The propane began to come out of the pipes that had been cut and built up under the home, according to the suit.
James McCarty went to take a shower the next afternoon, igniting the hot-water tank and setting off the explosion.
McCarty, 67, remains in a rehabilitation center in Philadelphia, Specter said, recovering mainly from third-degree burns that covered about a quarter of his body, "mostly his lower extremities."
Evelyn McCarty, 67, is also in a Philadelphia rehabilitation center, Specter said, and her primary injury was "severe fractures to her ankles."
In part because they remain in treatment, the total amount for their medical expenses is not yet clear, Specter said, along with the full extent of some of the other damages sought, which also include mental anguish and embarrassment.
"They have a long way to go," Specter said.