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Damage awards climb towards $30 million for survivors of Williams Olefins plant explosion

18 November 2016

A Louisiana jury has awarded a combined $16.1 million in damages to four workers injured in the explosion at the Williams Olefins chemical facility at Geismar, LA, on June 13, 2013. The massive explosion killed two employees and injured another 167, many seriously. The explosion started a large fire and people two miles away were ordered to shelter in place.

The explosion at Williams Olefins Geismar plant - Image CSB
The explosion at Williams Olefins Geismar plant - Image CSB

On November 15, the Iberville Parish jury found that plant owners and operators were negligent and made the award against Williams Olefins and its parent company (83.6%), Saudi-based Sabic Petrochemicals - which owns a 16% stake in the facility - (16%), plant official Parker Tucker (0.2%) and plant supervisor Larry Bayer (0.2%). The jury absolved another plant official, Erick Comeaux.

Plaintiff Brian Cotton was awarded a total of $3,790,789, $2.5 million of it for past and future physical pain and suffering and mental anguish and emotional distress. Plaintiff Paul Thompson was awarded $5,799,907, with $3 million earmarked for physical pain and suffering and mental anguish and $1.3 million for diminished earning capacity. Veronica Sowell was awarded $4,596,281 total, with $2.7 million for physical and mental pain and anguish and $800,000 for future medical expenses. Dakota Kelley was awarded $1,930,000 total, with $60,000 for physical suffering and $1 million for past and future mental anguish and emotional distress.

The same jury on September 26 awarded a total of $13.6 million to another four workers injured in the explosion, bringing the total awarded so far to $29.4 million. Additional trials are scheduled for January 2017 and April 2017.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) released its final report into explosion in October, concluding that process safety management program deficiencies at the Williams Geismar facility during the 12 years leading to the incident allowed a type of heat exchanger called a reboiler to be unprotected from overpressure, and ultimately rupture, causing the explosion.

The Williams Geismar facility produces ethylene and propylene for the petrochemical industry and employs approximately 110 people. At the time of the incident, approximately 800 contractors worked at the plant on an expansion project aimed at increasing the production of ethylene. It was scheduled to restart in November 2016.

“The tragic accident at Williams was preventable and therefore unacceptable,” said CSB Chairperson Vanessa Allen Sutherland, when the agency released its report.

Williams Olefins was cited by OSHA in December 2013 for six process safety management standard violations.

The "serious" violations included inadvertently mixing hot quench water with propylene and failing to provide appropriate pressure protection for a pressure vessel as well as failing to promptly correct deficiencies related to process safety management discovered by an internal compliance audit team. A serious violation occurs when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Proposed penalties were $99,000. The company reached a formal settlement with OSHA in December 2013 and agreed to pay total penalties of $36,000.

The company said in a statement it would appeal the $16.1 million verdict, having previously stated that it would appeal September's $13.6 million award.

"The June 2013 incident at the Williams Olefins Geismar Plant was tragic. Williams Olefins has admitted in numerous legal-related filings and ensuing reports, its responsibility for the accident. But, there was never any intent to injure anyone. We think the verdict does not comport with the law and will therefore appeal," the company said in a written statement.

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Correction - A representative of Williams has contacted Hazardex to point out that the OSHA settlement agreement for the June 13, 2013 incident changed an alleged “willful” violation to a “serious” violation. The article has been amended accordingly.


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