Mon 12 Mar, 2012 09:13 am
Mar. 11, 2012
ConAgra workers suing contractor over deadly 2009 explosion
Sarah Nagem | McClatchy Newspapers
SMITHFIELD, N.C. -- ]
Opening arguments could come as soon as next week in a trial over a civil suit brought by seven former ConAgra Foods workers against a contractor and one of its employees for their role in a deadly explosion at the plant.
Jacobs Engineering, an international firm with an office in North Carolina, and its employee Donald Pottner are named in the suit.
The company was hired as part of a project to install a commercial water heater at the Slim Jim plant in Garner, N.C., according to court documents. Investigators have said that purging of a natural gas line during the installation led to an explosion that killed four people and injured dozens more in June 2009.
The former ConAgra workers claim that Jacobs Engineering and Pottner "failed to make sure the pipe was purged" before the water heater installation began.
The lawsuit also claims that Jacobs Engineering did not properly train Pottner to oversee the installation of a water heater, and that Pottner began work on the project before he got the proper permits through the town of Garner's inspections department.
In the suit, the plaintiffs allege that the company and Pottner violated safety standards "in order to get the project done faster and cheaper" and "placed their own desire to finish the hot water heater project as fast as possible, ahead of the safety of the public."
The lawsuit doesn't specify the compensation the workers are seeking, other than to say it's in excess of $10,000.
Jury selection is under way in the case, which is being heard by Judge Robert H. Hobgood in Johnston County Superior Court.
David Stradley, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he couldn't discuss the case but said the trial will likely last several weeks.
Court documents tell of the ConAgra workers' injuries sustained in the blast. Some suffered broken bones, head injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the plaintiffs, Leonard Spruill, was burned on his face, head and arms and spent weeks at a hospital's burn unit, according to records.
The lawsuit originally named several other contractors associated with the water-heater project as defendants, but they have since been dismissed. ConAgra is not named in the suit.
At one point, the case listed 10 former ConAgra workers as plaintiffs, but three have voluntarily backed out.
ConAgra closed its Garner plant last May, leaving hundreds of workers without jobs. The company donated the site to the town, which is now trying to bring new companies there.
The explosion spurred safety changes. Following the blast, the National Fire Protection Association set a new safety standard in 2010 that requires companies to purge natural gas lines outdoors. Previously, the code did not prohibit indoor purging of gas lines.