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March 28. 2013 3:45PM

Unitil sued over '10 blaze that destroyed block on Hampton Beach

BRENTWOOD - The insurer for a retail store damaged in a windswept five-alarm fire that leveled a block of buildings on Hampton Beach in 2010 is suing Unitil, claiming the utility company is responsible for an electrical fault that sparked the blaze.

Lloyd's of London, which insured Decalomania Inc. at 241-243 Ocean Blvd., has taken legal action against the Hampton-based utility in Rockingham County Superior Court to recoup the $32,749 in insurance claims it paid out to cover damage to merchandise.

The suit accuses Unitil of negligence, claiming that before the fire broke out on Feb. 26, 2010, the company had altered a service line and left a utility pole inadequately secured.

"Due to Unitil's improper alteration/modification of the service line or lines, the utility pole was able to sway excessively," the suit said.

The suit, filed by Salem attorney Jeffrey A. Schreiber, claims the swaying caused an electrical fault that resulted in a temperature rise in an electrical conduit attached to the Surf Hotel at 275 Ocean Blvd. That increase in temperature ignited the fire, the suit alleges.

While fire investigators concluded that the fire started at the Surf Hotel, a cause was never determined.

The blaze was fueled by near-hurricane-force winds that raced through the three-story wood-frame hotel and then spread to four other buildings - the Happy Hampton Arcade, Mrs. Mitchell's gift shop, another retail building and a large storage building. The hotel also had three retail shops.

The fire, which caused millions of dollars in losses, came during a ferocious windstorm that toppled utility lines and trees in many areas, leading to the second-largest power outage in state history after the crippling ice storm of 2008.

"Before the rapidly spreading fire could be subdued, an entire block of Ocean Boulevard was engulfed in flames, including the top portion of the building occupied by Decalomania," the suit said. As firefighters tried to put out the blaze, the suit said water infiltrated Decalomania's building and damaged merchandise sold by the clothing and beachwear retailer.

The suit seeks a jury trial and argues that Unitil is liable for the damages paid to Decalomania through its insurer, Lloyd's of London.

Unitil spokesman Alec O'Meara said the company has obtained a copy of the lawsuit, is reviewing the claims and plans to respond "through appropriate legal avenues."

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