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Xcel found partly responsible for deadly 2018 Heather Gardens explosion

Jury awarded families of victims more than $30 million
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Posted at 5:17 PM, Feb 23, 2023

A jury Thursday awarded more than $30 million to the family of a woman who was killed and others who were impacted in a 2018 explosion at the Heather Gardens retirement community in Aurora.

Xcel Energy was the only defendant in the lawsuit and, according to attorneys, will have to pay roughly $3 million with interest for what the six-person jury determined was its share of responsibility for the explosion that killed Carol Ross, 82, on November 16, 2018.

The lawsuit originally named Comcast and three contractors, but those entities all settled with the families prior to the trial for undisclosed amounts.

In addition to Ross’ family, the plaintiffs included Sandra and Paul Staley, Ronald and Gloria Achenbach and Judy DeTar, who were all affected by the explosion.

Michael Burg, attorney for the families, said he was disappointed that the jury did not award any punitive damages.

“This is a company that doesn’t read their manuals. They don’t train their people, they don’t read the regulations, they don’t hire all the people they say they are going to… and the jury in this case said that’s OK,” Burg said.

The jury determined the share of responsibility between the involved parties and stated three of the cable contractors, along with Aurora Fire — which was not a defendant in the suit — were more responsible for the explosion than Xcel. They gave Xcel 12% of the culpability.

“We were hoping to make a change in their way of doing business. I’m not sure this will impact Xcel at all to create that change we’ve been looking for,” said Derek Ross, Carol Ross’ son. “The verdict was not the one we wanted. The outcome is not exactly what we hoped, but our mom would tell us not to sit on it and move ahead.”

In a statement, Xcel Energy said, “Our thoughts continue to be with the impacted families. This was a tragic and preventable incident. An investigation found that we didn't commit any violations. We continue to urge contractors to follow state and federal law by calling 811.”

On the day of the incident, Aurora Fire received a call regarding a punctured gas line. Roughly 80 minutes after that first report, crews on scene reported an explosion.

Denver7 Investigates previously reported on the timeline of events that took place prior to the explosion, including reports from the Heather Gardens maintenance committee that noted phone, electrical and water lines were hit by Comcast three months before the explosion.

In late October 2018, construction crews hit a gas line near the facility, requiring an evacuation, according to an Aurora Fire Department incident report. Two weeks later, the department responded to two more gas leaks in two days. Two days after that, another gas line was hit, which led to the explosion that killed Ross.

Her death was ruled an accident and no charges were filed. Neither Xcel nor Comcast ever publicly admitted any responsibility for the fire.