Lawsuit on behalf of 20 victims alleges steam burns from Detroit manholes
Brandon Dumas says he carries a permanent reminder of the burns he suffered when he landed on a steaming manhole cover after a hit-and-run driver slammed into his motorcycle near a busy Detroit intersection.
The Detroit resident sustained second-degree burns on his legs that required skin grafts and left a partial imprint of the letters "E" and "W" on his right calf from the Aug. 8, 2018, crash in the area of Cass and Grand Boulevard. He said he was in and out of hospitals afterward.
"When it first happened, I was severely injured ... a lot of anxiety on top of the pain," he said. "I have a civilian job I couldn't go to. I'm also in the military ... that also adversely affected my service as well."
Dumas, 35, is one of 20 people who are suing private contractors over injuries they say they suffered to their feet and legs from scalding manholes in Detroit. The complaint, filed Tuesday in Wayne County Circuit Court, names Detroit Thermal LLC, Detroit Renewable Energy LLC and Project Mist HoldCo LLC as defendants.
Detroit Thermal provides heating and cooling to more than 100 commercial and industrial buildings via an underground network in downtown Detroit. The steam system, which has changed hands several times, is 116 years old.
The companies failed to control the steam emitted from boiling hot steam pipes beneath Detroit's downtown streets, according to the lawsuit, which also alleges the defendants "failed to warn" pedestrians and others about the dangerous conditions that could lead to burns.
Dumas and another victim, a Farmington Hills first-grader, attended a news conference at the Buckfire law firm in Southfield announcing the filing of the lawsuit.
Robert Lantzy, one of the two attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said the companies have been "responsible for burning our clients for many years."
The suit alleges that several people suffered burns from manholes near TCF Center, Ford Field and Comerica Park.
“The arguments in our clients’ case are clear: these injuries were preventable,” said Nicolas A. Vesprini, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. “It is now our goal with this lawsuit to instigate operational changes so that pedestrians can safely walk the streets and sidewalks without suffering burn injuries in Detroit.”
Dan Herrick, a spokesman for Detroit Thermal, said Tuesday the company had not been formally notified of the lawsuit "and cannot comment on pending litigation."
"We strive more than anything to be a good neighbor," Herrick said. "Our team constantly monitors the system to identify and perform any necessary maintenance."
Sarah Tahmouch said her son Caleb, then 5, was hurt by steam from a manhole while crossing the street in April after visiting the Detroit Science Center with his grandparents.
"It's been emotional ... just to see your son go through that is really hard," said Sarah Tahmouch, who sat next to Caleb's dad, Kyle Sargent, as the bashful boy faced reporters during the news conference.
Tahmouch said her son was attracted by the steam rising out of the manhole, but shortly after he crossed it, his leg began blistering.
"He thought it was a cool thing," Tahmouch said. "It went up his pant leg and burned him severely."
Lantzy said: ''It's bad when you see anyone get burned, but when it's a child it's especially disturbing."
The plaintiffs' attorneys said they are seeking more than $25,000 in damages for each victim.
Delaware-based Project Mist HoldCo is the owner of Detroit Thermal parent company Renewable Energy, which it purchased in November 2017.
Matt Helms, a spokesman for the Michigan Public Service Commission, said a check of records dating to 2013 showed the agency "has not received any complaints about safety matters involving Detroit Thermal."
He said the MPSC does not have regulatory authority over safety matters at Detroit Thermal; its authority is limited to rates the company charges to customers, and for contracts for fuel.