JJ's trial update: USIC attorneys say employee marked utility line correctly

JJ's property damage case enters second day

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The property damage case between JJ’s restaurant, the line marking company USIC and Time Warner Cable has entered its second day.

Wednesday began with attorneys for USIC presenting their opening statements to jurors. The company is under fire by JJ’s for marking one electric line on the pavement instead of two. The contractor in charge of laying the lines for Time Warner, Heartland Midwest, has maintained they did everything right, but says the lines were mismarked causing them to hit a 2-inch gas main.

But USIC attorneys objected to that contention during their opening statements. Attorney David Helms told jurors that not only were the lines marked appropriately and according to Missouri law, the contractor had enough information to discover all of the lines in the area.

In addition, he told jurors that the contractor should have known that gas and electric lines cannot run side by side. (The lines need a buffer of 12 inches to keep electricity from accidentally igniting the gas.)

USIC also contends that it was not allowed to mark depth because MGE forbid them from doing so in its contract. The plaintiffs have presented facts that Missouri law requires them to provide that information, but USIC said it could not violate its client’s orders.

Still, the plaintiff’s attorneys told jurors in their opening statements that there were a series of other missteps by USIC. Court records reviewed by 41 Action News show the individual responsible for the line markings, Kevin Goucher, had a history of mistakes in his employment record. On at least one occasion, USIC managers threatened to fire him.

However, those court records suggest Goucher was USIC’s biggest money maker and highest performer because he could, according to those same filings, perform a line marking in as little as five minutes.

In the transcripts of a deposition reviewed by 41 Action News, Goucher told attorneys the day he marked the lines, his computer only registered one electric line in the area. Goucher reportedly had a map indicating two lines running to a street light in the area.

Instead of erring on the side of caution and marking two, Goucher testified he only marked one.

USIC attorneys presented depositions from experts who testified there would be no way for the computer to indicate two lines. They believe the Heartland Midwest crew should have known that couldn’t be the gas line based on its proximity to the electric line and its color. (Electric lines typically are black. Gas lines typically, but not always, are yellow and have a tracer wire near them.)

USIC attorneys also defended Goucher, saying he had few mistakes in his 20-year career. They said his average is around 99 percent.

Attorneys for USIC placed the blame on MGE, who is not a party to this case being tried right now. In addition, they placed blame on JJ’s employees who they say should have known that gas was accumulating.

They also placed blame on sous chef Patrick Woodward. USIC attorneys say Woodward had done cocaine and marijuana the night before the explosion, had 5-6 beers the morning of the explosion, and 4-5 vodka shots before reporting to work. They plan to present evidence showing his judgment was impaired and thus he could not quickly respond to turn out pilot lights.

USIC attorneys also objected to the $9 million in damages JJ’s is seeking. Attorneys presented evidence the restaurant had been losing money each year for six years prior to the explosion.

After lunch, jurors heard from the first witness: JJ’s owner David Frantze. David and Jimmy Frantze share ownership in the building. David and JJ"s manager Matt Nichols share ownership in the restaurant.

Over the next two weeks, jurors will hear from experts in wine, horizontal boring, and emergency response for gas leaks. They’ll also hear from some of the people who responded to the scene that day.

The trial is expected to take at least two weeks.

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Melissa Yeager can be reached at melissa.yeager@kshb.com

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