A federal court has ruled ConAgra Foods wasn’t liable for a fire and explosion that burned three workers. That cancels most of a large jury award to the three workers.
The jury had awarded almost $180 million to the workers from ConAgra and West Side Salvage, a company hired to address problems in a grain bin in Chester, IL.
In March 2010, ConAgra discovered a burning smell in a bin at its facility that contained wheat pellets. ConAgra hired West Side, a contractor with expertise in handling “hot bins.”
Negotiations between ConAgra and West Side and the contractor’s own busy schedule delayed work on the bin until April 20, 2010. West Side hired A & J Bin Cleaning as a subcontractor to perform some tasks.
On April 27, 2010, West Side detected smoke coming from the bin. Firefighters were called. West Side’s foreman sent its own employee, Justin Becker, and an A & J employee, John Jentz, into a side tunnel of the bin where work had been taking place to remove tools that might get in firefighters’ way.
While Jentz and Becker were in the tunnel, an explosion occurred. They were severely burned. Jentz suffered burns on 75% of his body. A third worker, Robert Schmidt, who was employed by A & J, was in an elevator nearby and was also injured, but less seriously.
ConAgra contested the jury awards stating it didn’t believe its actions caused the injuries. It said the liability rested with West Side which didn’t contest its liability but appealed the jury verdict saying damages were excessive.
Now the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of ConAgra. The company argued it couldn’t be held liable because it had hired West Side to address the unsafe condition at its bin. The court agreed with that reasoning.
The case is now remanded to a district court to determine compensatory damages owed to Jentz and Schmidt from West Side. Becker can’t collect from West Side because workers’ comp law excludes employees from suing their company for workplace injuries.
(Jentz v. ConAgra Foods Inc., U.S. Circuit Crt. 7,