Sunday, September 9, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A 2008 lawsuit alleging negligence by Ameren Missouri in a natural gas explosion that killed an elderly couple appears likely to go to trial this week.

The trial in the Sneed lawsuit is set to begin Tuesday with jury selection.

Carl and Merna Sneed, who lived at 308 McNab Drive in the East Campus neighborhood, both died as the result of injuries from the March 14, 2008 blast that could be felt miles away. The fire from the blast damaged the side of a home across the street. 

Carl Sneed, 87, died from burns inside the home. Merna Sneed, 85, was thrown from the home and suffered burns on more than 30 percent of her body. She died three weeks later at University Hospital.

The daughters of Carl and Merna Sneed — Patricia K. Sneed, Pamela R. Heath and Terry L. Sneed — filed the lawsuit in June 2008. Patricia Sneed and Pamela Health, who live in California, and Terry Sneed, who lives in Columbia, are being represented in the suit by Neil Johnson of Berkowitz Oliver of Kansas City.

Ameren Missouri is being represented by Gerald King of Armstrong Teasdale LLP, also of Kansas City.

Several of the Sneeds’ neighbors could be called as witnesses in addition to experts in natural gas procedures. Among the potential witnesses are Daryl Keller, who lived in the house that was damaged in the blast across the street from the Sneeds; Fred Luetkemeier, supervisor of Ameren’s gas operations in Columbia; and Bob Leonberger, supervisor of engineering and safety in the energy unit of the Missouri Public Service Commission.

Similar lawsuits have been filed in the past few years alleging negligence against utilities across the country in natural gas explosions, according to news reports. Many of them have been settled. Among them:

  •  A natural gas pipeline exploded and destroyed an entire neighborhood in San Bruno, Calif., on Sept. 9, 2010. The explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. All wrongful death lawsuits against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. were settled.
  • Five people, including a four-month-old baby, were killed in a home explosion on Feb. 9, 2011, in Allentown, Penn. The lawsuit alleged negligence by UGI utilities when they installed a piece of wood under the pipeline that exploded. Two of the people killed lived next to the home that exploded. That lawsuit reached a private settlement. The other lawsuit is still active.
  •  An elderly woman’s home exploded on Jan. 30, 2012, in Topeka, Kan. The gas line at the home of Lucy Tolliver was struck when workers installed a sprinkler system at a neighboring home. Tolliver died as a result of injuries a few days later. The family plans to file a suit against the sprinkler company, N-Line Lawn Service and Kansas Gas Company for negligence. N-Line Lawn Service called the gas company when they realized the line had been struck, and the family is suing, alleging the utility put the caller on hold for more than 15 minutes.

Wally Bley, a Columbia attorney who has experience with wrongful death lawsuits, said the trial will likely include testimony from engineers and mechanical engineers on the requirements of upkeep and maintenance of equipment. Bley said because the lawsuit was filed by adults who are not supported by their parents, it will focus more on liability instead of damages.

“It will focus on the liability of the utility and proving negligence using expert testimony,” he said. Lawyers and experts will strive to present that technical information in a way jurors can understand, he said. 

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.