By Eric J. Conn
A federal jury recently awarded three workers approximately $180 million in damages for injuries sustained in a 2010 explosion at a grain elevator owned by ConAgra Foods, Inc. See Jentz v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. 3:10-cv-00747 (S.D.I. June 1, 2012). At the one-month trial in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, the plaintiffs alleged that ConAgra and West Side Salvage Inc., a maintenance contractor and co-defendant, were liable for their injuries because they failed to:
- Clean the grain bin properly;
- Maintain wheat middling pellets (flour production byproducts used as animal feed) in a reasonably safe manner; and
- Take precautions necessary to protect and warn workers of hazardous conditions.
Finding that ConAgra and West Side acted negligently, the jury awarded the plaintiffs approximately and $80 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages. ConAgra is responsible for $160 million of the damages and West Side is responsible for almost $21 million. Because ConAgra intends to appeal the verdict and damages, payment to the plaintiffs will be stayed until a final resolution of this case.
By way of background, on April 27, 2010, the plaintiffs were removing equipment from a concrete grain bin at ConAgra’s grain mill in Chester, Illinois when the bin exploded. The plaintiffs alleged that the explosion occurred because the grain bin had not been cleaned in twenty years, causing the wheat middling pellets inside to self-heat, smolder, and explode. Although all three plaintiffs survived, they sustained severe burns to their bodies and faces.
This significant verdict place grain handlers under even more scrutiny, and emboldens OSHA to intensify its active enforcement program targeting grain handlers’ programs. Grain handlers should expect OSHA to continue performing comprehensive wall-to-wall inspections of grain elevators, issuing citations (many flawed and based on inconsistent interpretations of standards), and releasing inflammatory public statements about unproven allegations that carelessly harm employers’ reputations. Prudent grain handlers, therefore, should proactively prepare for OSHA’s arrival by, at the very least:
- Implementing safety and health programs;
- Conducting regular audits of these programs and their effectiveness;
- Performing hazard assessments of workplace conditions;
- Training employees regularly on the hazards associated with grain elevators and their jobs; and
- Responding promptly to safety and health concerns.
Such preparatory and precautionary actions will enable grain handlers to showcase to OSHA a genuine and good-faith commitment to their employees’ safety and health.
Lindsay A. Smith, a Summer Associate (not admitted to the practice of law) in Epstein Becker Green’s Washington, DC, office, contributed significantly to the preparation of this post.