Bangor, MI – By L.Turner, kalamazoo Gazette
A Van Buren County jury Friday awarded $14.1 million to the mother of a man whose family of four died in the 2002 explosion of their rented Bangor-area farmhouse.
Van Buren County Circuit Judge William Buhl, who presided over the case, said it is the largest jury judgment he can recall in more than 31 years on the bench.
Marshall Lotz, 30, his wife, Alaine Lotz, 31, and their children Conner, 4, and Colin, 1, died in the Sept. 15, 2002, blast. Alaine Lotz’s mother, 56-year-old Priscilla Reppert, was also killed, but her estate was not part of the trial and jury award.
The Lotz family was moving from Lafayette, Ind., with Reppert’s help, and was spending their first night in a farmhouse on 63rd Street in Bangor Township when it exploded. Michigan State Police said the 2:30 a.m. blast was caused by a buildup of propane gas in the basement of the one-story farmhouse.
“They had started bringing up things from their home in Indiana to build a new life in this farmhouse,” said Steven Weston, lead attorney for the plaintiff, Lynn Lotz, mother of Marshall Lotz. “The wife was excited about being able to stay home to raise the children while her husband went to work (at the hog-farming operation next to the house).”
Marshall Lotz had worked for Signature Farms for three years before moving to Michigan to work at the 1,800-hog operation.
The suit claimed the farmhouse was not safe for habitation. A witness testified that the gas pipeline to the house was damaged, which allowed gas to settle in the basement. Debris was hurled at least 800 feet and the explosion rattled windows three miles away, police and neighbors said.
Weston said Reppert’s family settled with Signature Farms and Cherrytree Farms, owners and operators of the hog farm, before the eight-day trial started in Paw Paw on Jan. 24.
Attorneys for the farming operation could not be reached for comment late Friday. Weston said he expects the companies, both based in Indiana, to appeal the verdict.
The jury deliberated for less than five hours in agreeing on the award, said Weston, of the Kalamazoo law firm of Halpert, Weston, Wuori & Sawusch.