Court hears arguments in $180 million personal injury lawsuit against ConAgra for Illinois grain bin explosion

by Charles Miller

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago recently heard arguments in a personal injury case involving a southern Illinois grain elevator explosion that led to a $180 million jury verdict against ConAgra Food Inc. and West Side Salvage. The two companies are asking the court of appeals to reverse the judgment or at least lower some of the awards for damages.

In 2010, an explosion at a ConAgra grain facility in Chester, Illinois injured John Jentz, Robert Schmidt and Justin Becker. The three men were injured when a bin holding processed grain exploded.

Prior to the incident, ConAgra had hired West Side Salvage to clean out the bin that, according to the plaintiffs, had started to smolder a month earlier and had not been cleaned in 17 years. Becker was an employee of West Side Salvage, and Jentz and Schmidt worked for A& J Bin Cleaning, a company that West Side hired to help with the project.

The plaintiffs claim that that ConAgra knew the bin was dangerous but failed to get it fixed in a timely manner because it was trying to find a cheaper contractor. In response to the lawsuit, ConAgra asserted claims against West Side, alleging that the plaintiff’s injuries occurred because West Side’s foreman sent Jentz and Becker back into the bin to remove tools after they had been evacuated and shortly before it exploded.

Following a month-long trial, the jury returned a verdict awarding the three plaintiffs a total of about $180 million in damages. Jentz sustained severe burns over 70 to 75 percent of his body and was awarded about $41.5 million in compensatory damages and $34.3 million in punitive damages. Schmidt suffered second-degree burns on his hands neck and face. He was awarded nearly $1.9 million in compensatory damages and $33.3 million in punitive damages, which was later reduced. Becker sustained burns over about 12 percent of his body and was awarded about $35 million in compensatory damages and $33.3 million in punitive damages.

ConAgra’s attorney argued to the court of appeals that the decision of West Side’s foreman to send the plaintiffs back into the bin to retrieve tools after they were evacuated shows that ConAgra should not be held responsible. The plaintiffs responded by arguing that, regardless of what happened on the day of the incident, ConAgra should have tried to fix its bin problem at the first onset of smoke a month earlier, but instead chose to delay while they shopped around for a cheaper contractor. The plaintiffs maintain that ConAgra created the risk by waiting 17 years to clean a bin that should be cleaned every year. A decision from the court of appeals is likely later this year.

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by Charles Miller

Charles Miller is a licensed attorney and a partner at Heygood, Orr & Pearson. Charles focuses his practice on areas of complex commercial litigation and personal injury litigation.