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Victims of R.M. Palmer explosion seek accountability

People stand on a hill and watch as emergency crews sift through the rubble for several missing people on March 25 after an explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. on March 24, 2023 destroyed part of the candy factory.
Jeremy Long
People stand on a hill and watch as emergency crews sift through the rubble for several missing people on March 25 after an explosion at R.M. Palmer Co. on March 24, 2023 destroyed part of the candy factory.

It’s been a month since the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory in West Reading exploded, killing seven people and injuring several others. The National Transportation Safety Board has called the blast “a natural gas explosion,” and is investigating if and how a pipeline might have played a role.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is also looking into potential workplace safety violations. The agency has up to six months to complete the investigation, OSHA spokesperson Joanna Hawkins said.

While those investigations are underway, family members who lost loved ones, and people who were injured, are filing lawsuits against R.M. Palmer and UGI Utilities in Philadelphia common pleas court.

Betty Wright was living in a building next to the factory on South Second Avenue when it exploded on March 24. Wright filed a lawsuit three days later. She alleges the explosion caused her to be “lifted from her feet and blown across the room causing severe and permanent injuries.” Wright lost access to her apartment, according to the lawsuit.

Wright accuses R.M. Palmer of not properly inspecting, repairing and testing gas lines and equipment that might have caused the explosion. Wright is seeking more than $50,000 for her injuries and the property she lost.

On April 11, family members of Judith Lopez-Moran, one of the employees who died in the blast, filed a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing R.M. Palmer and UGI Utilities of negligence. The plaintiff is Edith Ruiz, the administrator of Lopez-Moran’s estate.

The lawsuit accuses UGI Utilities of “defectively, negligently and recklessly” maintaining, installing and repairing the pipeline that supplied gas to the factory. It also accuses R.M. Palmer of intentional misrepresentation, alleging the supervisors told “factory workers, including Judith Lopez-Moran, that the factory was safe and that there was no gas leak” so that they would continue working.

The firm representing Lopez-Moran’s family, , told the Reading Eagle it is representing more than a dozen victims of the disaster.

UGI declined to comment for this story, stating that it does not comment on pending litigation.

In a statement, R.M. Palmer said they cannot comment on the accident or the allegations in the lawsuits because they are currently assisting the NTSB in its probe and cannot comment on anything related to the ongoing federal investigation.

Mark Baxter, a tanker truck driver, was unloading a delivery of melted chocolate when the factory exploded. Baxter, who is still being treated for his injuries, and his wife Donna, filed a lawsuit against R.M. Palmer and UGI Utilities. The Baxters are also suing for negligence, accusing both companies of poor inspection practices that failed to detect a deadly gas leak.

According to the lawsuit, Baxter suffered hearing loss and various injuries, including third-degree burns to 19% of his body. He is seeking money to pay for medical bills, but the amount he is requesting is yet to be determined.

Baxter’s lawyer, Richard Jurewicz, says more lawsuits against R.M Palmer are expected. Some families who lost relatives in the explosion have reached out to his firm, Galfand Berger LLP, he said.

Jurewicz said that eventually, all lawsuits filed in relation to the explosion will be consolidated under one court term and number to make it easier to share evidence and documents from the defense counsel, and also for trial purposes.

“What ordinarily will happen with this is that the lawyers, the plaintiffs, lawyers, such as myself, will form a committee, and depending upon what type of clients they represent, the committee will be responsible for coordinating and orchestrating a plan for discovery,” Jurewicz said. “Because you don’t want 10, 12, 14 lawsuits and lawyers going in different directions.”

The family of Susan Halvonik, another employee who was killed, is preparing to take legal action against the companies, court records show. A complaint has not been filed.

Keith Holloway, spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the agency’s complete investigation into the cause of the explosion could take up to 24 months. The first step would be to release a preliminary report, but there is no set date for that.

Gabriela Martínez | WITF