NAPLES — A trio of lawsuits filed in the past year seeking damages related to a 2011 gas explosion at Mangrove Cafe in downtown Naples could just be the first wave of filings that contend a local propane company was negligent at the time of the explosion.
A fourth suit hoping to block insurance payouts has been filed in federal court.
William McCauley filed suit in Collier Circuit Court in April against Heritage Operating LP, doing business in Naples as Balgas, and Thomas Smith, a Balgas propane employee. The suit contends both the propane company and Smith were negligent at the time of the accident. That negligence, the suit goes on to say, directly led to the explosion and McCauley's injuries.
McCauley was a chef at Mangrove Cafe, 878 Fifth Ave. S., in January 2011 when the propane explosion occurred. Fire officials at the time said they believe the large fireball that blew out windows, knocked down walls and detached the roof of the restaurant was triggered by a propane leak erupting next to a car.
McCauley was one of three people injured. Smith and Donald Kingston, a beer distributor, also were injured.
Kingston on May 8 filed a similar negligence suit in Collier Circuit Court against Balgas and Smith. That suit, much like McCauley's, contends negligence directly led to Kingston's injuries.
Both suits allege the propane company didn't properly train Smith. That improper training led to Smith failing to remain in attendance while the propane transfer occurred and to make sure all of the ignitions were turned off.
They also state Smith didn't possess the knowledge, training or experience needed to dispense propane.
McCauley's suit goes on to say he suffered bodily injury, pain and suffering that is "either permanent or continuing" and will lead to future losses.
Kingston's suit takes his injuries a step further.
Deborah Gander, the Coral Gables-based attorney representing Kingston, said he has "severe burns and a brain injury that left him completely unable to care for himself."
Gander said the firm is seeking substantial damages on behalf of her client, but wouldn't specify an amount.
Sharon Hanlon, the Naples-based attorney representing McCauley, said the decision to sue the propane company instead of the restaurant was because there was no information "that the restaurant did anything wrong."
While McCauley's and Kingston's suits deal with negligence resulting in injury, Hanlon said recently she expects Mangrove Cafe employees to follow their lead and sue the propane company for lost earnings.
One such suit already is out there.
Les Zablaskai, a former Mangrove Cafe employee, in June 2011 filed suit alleging Balgas was negligent at the time of the accident. That negligence, the suit contends, led to "a loss of employment opportunities, loss of past and future employment income and fringe benefits, humiliation and noneconomic damages for physical injuries, mental and emotional distress."
Zablaskai's attorney, Benjamin Yormak, declined to comment on the suit but said he believed the court filings speak for themselves.
Sharon Jacobs, the regional manager for Balgas of Naples, said she couldn't comment on pending litigation.
A fourth suit is also pending.
North Pointe Insurance Co., the beer distributor's insurance company, in March filed suit in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers. That suit seeks declaratory relief against seven companies or individuals — including Balgas, McCauley, Smith and Kingston.
Michael Packer, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing the insurance company, said he couldn't comment on pending litigation.
But according to the suit, the insurance company is looking for a judge to declare that parties involved in the explosion cannot file an insurance claim with North Pointe. According to the suit, the policy "specifically excludes coverage for claims of 'bodily injury' or 'property damage' arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of an auto owned, operated by or loaned to an insured."