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Home / News / Third-party workplace explosion suit settles for nearly $2.9M

Third-party workplace explosion suit settles for nearly $2.9M

This action arose from a fire and explosion that occurred at a feed and grain mill, which was owned and operated by the third-party defendants. The plaintiff was not employed by the feed and grain mill, but instead was employed by a subcontractor that had been hired to perform repair work at the mill.

The plaintiff, while acting within the scope of his employment duties, was installing a screw conveyor system in an underground tunnel or “pit,” which was a permit-required confined space that was connected to a bucket conveyor grain elevator at the feed and grain mill.

Unbeknownst to the plaintiff, other co-workers were authorized to begin a welding operation approximately 90+/- feet above ground level on the side of a bucket conveyor belt grain elevator that was connected to the tunnel or pit where the plaintiff was working. The third-party defendants did not issue a hot work permit, and the welders, who were plaintiff’s co-workers, did not request a hot work permit. (The plaintiff’s employer was not present at the workplace at the time of the accident.)

A fire and explosion resulted after the welders engaged in welding operations on the bucket conveyor belt elevator that contained combustible grain dust. The welding activity by the plaintiff’s co-workers on the bucket conveyor belt elevator ignited combustibles inside the bucket conveyor belt elevator, which caused a fire and explosion that engulfed the plaintiff and caused severe burns and injuries.

The plaintiff suffered second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body and a smoke-inhalation injury. He spent almost three months in the UNC Hospital Burn Center. He required skin grafts and several surgeries. After he finished the course of medical treatment, he was released from medical treatment and authorized to return to work subject to certain restrictions.

In regard to workers’ compensation, the plaintiff’s claims were accepted by the workers’ compensation carrier and all medical expenses and lost wages were paid during the course of his recovery. As a result, by the time that the third-party litigation resolved, the workers’ compensation carrier held a substantial lien. Insomuch as the plaintiff was a third-party contractor’s employee brought in to perform work in the defendants’ facility, however, his claims against the feed and grain mill defendants were not preempted by the workers’ compensation exclusive-remedy provision.     

Negligence and causation were hotly contested in the litigation. The plaintiff’s allegations included, among other things, that the defendants failed to follow certain safety precautions and safety standards relating to hot work, hot work permits and permit-required confined spaces, and that these shortcomings led to the fire and explosion that injured the plaintiff. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendants failed to follow certain safety precautions relating to the authorization of the work and the work itself, failed to inspect and clean all relevant areas, failed to ensure that all fire/explosion hazards were eliminated or controlled and failed to warn the plaintiff of the hazards relating to the work and work areas. The plaintiff also used the fact that OSHA cited the third-party defendants and the plaintiff’s employer with several safety violations in support of his allegations.

The third-party defendants vigorously disputed these allegations, and instead contended that it was the negligence of the plaintiff’s employer and the negligence of plaintiff’s co-workers that led to the fire/explosion. The third-party defendants also alleged contributory negligence. Moreover, the plaintiff’s employer appeared in the action pursuant to NCGS § 97-10.2 (3) to defend himself against and from the third-party defendants’ allegation that the actionable negligence of the employer caused the fire/explosion or otherwise joined and concurred with the negligence of the third-party defendants in causing plaintiffs’ injury. The plaintiff’s employer denied the same. The workers’ compensation carrier also sought to recover its lien.

As an aside, at the time of the subject settlement, the third-party defendants and the plaintiff’s employer were engaged in separate litigation in another county regarding “property damages” arising from the same fire/explosion at the feed and grain mill.

The plaintiff’s case settled on the eve of trial. The plaintiff’s case settled for payment by the third-party defendants of $1.75 million, a waiver by the workers’ compensation carrier of its $938,569 lien, and payment of an additional $195,000 (“clincher”), resulting in a $2,883,569 total recovery.


Settlement Report

Type of action: Negligence, third-party liability

Injuries alleged: Second/third-degree burns to 25 percent of total body surface area and a smoke-inhalation injury

Case name: Confidential

Case number: Confidential

Court: Bladen County Superior Court

Judge: Hon. Douglas Sasser

Verdict or settlement: Settlement

Date: Aug. 26, 2010

Amount: Total settlement of $2,883,569

Highest offer: The case was declared an impasse during mediation.   

Insurer: The third-party defendants were self-insured.    

Experts: Raymond P. Boylston, CSP (Raleigh); Johnny Pope, CFI (Morehead City)

Were liability and/or damages contested?Yes

Was the opposing party represented by legal counsel? Yes

Has the plaintiff been successful in actually collecting the judgment or settlement? Yes

Plaintiff’s attorney: Michael T. Mills (Wilmington)

Editor’s note: The information in Lawyers Weekly’s verdicts and settlements reports was submitted by the counsel for the prevailing party and represents the attorney’s characterization of the case.

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