A Tennessee boiler system company has reached a settlement with Laura Patty, the widow of Gary Thomas, a longtime Homer resident and volunteer killed on Jan. 14, 2022, when a Lochinvar boiler exploded at a house Thomas had been checking on for a friend who lived out of town. Patty filed a wrongful death lawsuit on her behalf and that of their children, Mica Thomas, Mariah Greenwald and Jenny Doherty. Patty’s lawyer, Myron Angstman, announced the decision in a press release sent to the Homer News on May 5.
As part of the settlement, the Thomas family received an undisclosed amount of money. In a phone interview, Patty said she will give the money to several area nonprofits to use as they deem appropriate. In a press release on Tuesday, the Rotary Club of Homer-Kachemak Bay, one of the nonprofits Thomas volunteered for, announced it had already received $10,000 in a donation from the settlement. Rotary President Bernie Griffard wrote that the club seeks proposals on what projects to fund.
“Because Gary touched so many lives in Homer, the Homer-Kachemak Bay Rotary Club is looking for a meaningful project that will be enjoyed by and benefit the entire community,” Griffard said in the release.
According to the press release, in the lawsuit against Lochinvar LLC, the boiler system manufacturer, Patty alleged that the boiler exploded after Thomas pressed a reset button to restart it after the boiler shut off and froze. Thomas had made an inspection of the house and garage, according to notes Thomas made that were found later, and wrote that the house was frozen.
“The boiler, which apparently was frozen as well, managed to thaw some ice, but the water quickly turned to steam, creating extreme pressure in the boiler because it had no place to circulate,” Angstman wrote in the press release. “The boiler exploded and killed Thomas, and badly damaged the garage where it was located.”
Patty alleged the boiler should have been equipped with a cold temperature lockout similar to a hot temperature lockout already part of the boiler, but Lochinvar had not made that alteration. Lochinvar quickly took steps to prevent resets when the boiler might be frozen by attaching a warning next to the reset button on newly manufactured boilers and in manuals, according to the press release.
“Freezing conditions,” the label says. “If this boiler may be frozen, immediately shut off power and gas to the appliance and contact the factory for further instructions. Operation when the heat exchanger, internal pipes or pressure relief valves are frozen will result in an internal pressure build up and a deadly steam explosion. Neither the freeze protection feature of the boiler control module nor the use of glycol (an antifreeze) eliminates the possibility.”
In a phone interview, Patty said owners of older boilers should be aware of the design flaw and know not to attempt a reset if the boiler is suspected to be frozen. Patty said she wanted to get the word out to Lochinvar boiler users.
“That’s key: to alert existing customers,” she said.
In the press release, Angstman said Patty was satisfied with the outcome of the lawsuit. The case had been scheduled to go to a jury trial this month.
Thomas had a long career in public service and media. A founding member and volunteer of KBBI Public Radio, he worked as general manager from 1980-91. He also worked with radio personality and writer Tom Bodett of Clear Shot Productions, and later as an advertising sales manager and then editor and publisher of the Homer News. Thomas served as a volunteer firefighter for 40 years with the Homer Volunteer Fire Department and later as captain with Kachemak Emergency Services.
In a memorial service at the Mariner Theatre held Jan. 19, 2020, a standing-room-only crowd packed the room. Rows of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians lined the sides, and a huge American flag hung between two firetrucks greeted mourners as they arrived.
Thomas exemplified Rotary’s motto of “Service Above Self,” the press release said. “Thomas’s death continues to leave a hole in the heart of the community. … He held several offices in Rotary and supervised the club’s annual health fair for several years. He also served as auctioneer for nearly every Homer nonprofit and good cause, as well as volunteered as guest pronouncer at countless school spelling bees. He also emceed many private fundraisers for people in need.”
Proposals are due to Rotary by June 30 and should be mailed to Rotary Club of Homer-Kachemak Bay, P.O. Box 377, Homer, AK 99603, or emailed to Griffard at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributions to add to the $10,000 are welcome and can be mailed to the club’s address. Include a notation that it is for the Gary Thomas Project. Rotary will decide on a project by Sept. 1, 2022.