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Lawsuit revived in freezing death

A state appellate court reinstated a lawsuit Friday against National Fuel in the death of a Buffalo woman who froze in her unheated flat after months of unsuccessful efforts to get the company to turn on her gas.

The five-judge Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Rochester unanimously revived Donna Fordham-Coleman's suit over the death of her mother, Velma A. Fordham, whose body was discovered Feb. 19, 2001.

The decision, written by Senior Associate Justice Samuel L. Green of Buffalo, noted that for three months, Fordham, 58, had tried unsuccessfully to get heat for her flat at 227 Burgard Place.

"A jury is particularly well suited" to determine issues in the case, Green said.

On Feb. 28, 2006, State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski had dismissed the wrongful death and punitive damages claims against National Fuel, leaving the utility liable only for pain and suffering. The appellate court also unsealed the full court record, which Makowski had sealed.

"National Fuel failed to discharge its obligation [to Fordham] under the Public Service Law and its own procedures by failing to respond in a timely manner to [the victim's] initial request for gas service."

In unsealing the court records, the appeals judges said the suit "raises serious issues of legitimate public concern."

"We're back in business," said John P. Feroleto, the Buffalo attorney representing the victim's daughter, who lives in Brooklyn. He said a trial could begin as soon as October before Makowski and a jury.

Though a previous lawyer for Fordham-Coleman had suggested the possibility of a $110 million jury verdict against the utility, Feroleto declined to say how much will be sought this time around.

Julie Coppola Cox, National Fuel spokeswoman, said the company was "disappointed with the ruling" because it made "no findings," stating only that Makowski had been "premature" in dismissing parts of the case. National Fuel attorneys, she said, will continue to review Friday's decision before the company decides on its next legal step.

The appellate court cited the autopsy finding of the Erie County medical examiner, who ruled that Fordham died of hypothermia.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com

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