Claiming their employer failed to take action to avoid an explosion, three contract workers who were seriously burned will receive a total of $179 million in compensatory and punitive damages from ConAgra Foods.
A federal jury awarded John Jentz a total of $75.5 million. Jentz suffered burns over 75% of his body. He’s undergone numerous surgeries and skin grafts for disabling injuries.
Worker Justin Becker received $66.9 million; employee Robert Schmidt was awarded $36.2 million.
The awards include $101 million in punitive damages that were split evenly among the three men.
The three men were working in a ConAgra grain silo in Chester, IL, on April 27, 2010, when the structure exploded.
A chemical reaction had ignited grain pellets inside the silo at least six weeks before the explosion. The silo had been emitting a strange smell and smoke.
Despite the warning signs and complaints from employees, managers didn’t call firefighters and didn’t warm the three contractors before sending them into the silo to remove equipment.
Following a one month trial, the jury deliberated for 10 hours before returning its verdict.
ConAgra issued a statement which said, “We do not agree with the verdict or damages. Specifically we do not believe our actions caused the injuries, and we will appeal this outcome.”
The company said it does have insurance policies it believes would cover the full amount of the judgment.
Attorneys for the three men presented evidence that the silo hadn’t been properly cleaned in 20 years and precautions weren’t taken to protect workers.
Marc Taxman, an attorney for one of the workers, said the companies should have removed the pellets from the silo immediately after it became apparent they had ignited. Taxman said ConAgra delayed while trying to get a better price for the grain. They also refused to use water on the grain to avoid destroying it, he said.