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Archive for Thursday, June 3, 2004

Venue changed in gas lawsuit

June 3, 2004

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— The nature of a class action lawsuit against ONEOK Inc. over natural gas explosions here more than three years ago makes it impossible to seat a jury in Reno County, a judge ruled in granting the gas company's motion for a change of venue.

The trial had been scheduled to start Wednesday with jury selection. It was not immediately clear how long Reno County District Judge Richard Rome's decision, made Tuesday, would delay it. Rome also has not decided where the trial will be held, but the judge named Wichita and Salina as possibilities.

The lawsuit includes anyone who owns a business or property in the county, with attorneys contending that a gas leak and deadly explosions in 2001 devalued all those properties.

Lynn Hursh, an attorney for Tulsa, Okla.-based ONEOK, said 73 percent of those responding to a jury questionnaire either owned land in the county or were related to landowners. That automatically disqualifies them from deciding the case.

"It bothers me to no end that the class will include every landowner in the county and they can't sit on this jury," Rome said in issuing his ruling.

In January, a Sedgwick County jury awarded $5.25 million to the owners of two businesses destroyed in the Jan. 17, 2001 explosions, sparked by gas leaking from ONEOK's Yaggy storage field northwest of Hutchinson.

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