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US jury awards ConAgra grain elevator explosion victims $181million

06 June 2012

Three men who were badly burned inside a ConAgra Foods grain elevator have been awarded $181 million by a federal jury in Illinois. John Jentz, Robert Schmidt and Justin Becker were, according to the lawsuit, removing equipment from a concrete grain bin at ConAgra's flour-milling site in the Mississippi city of Chester on April 27, 2010, when the bin exploded.

Two of the three victims of the 2010 ConAgra grain elevator explosion
Two of the three victims of the 2010 ConAgra grain elevator explosion

After 10 hours of deliberations, the jury decided the three should split evenly $100 million in punitive damages. The jury also decided Jentz should receive another $41.5 million in compensatory damages, with $34 million going to Becker and $2.9 to Schmidt. Jentz was awarded another $1 million from Westside Salvage Inc., ConAgra's co-defendant.

During the trial, their attorneys argued that not only had the bin not been properly cleaned in nearly two decades, but that for weeks the company had been warned that the bin could explode at any moment -- warnings it did not act upon or even share with the three victims and other workers.

Nebraska-based ConAgra, one of the largest food companies in the US, has vowed to appeal the outcome.

"Clearly, this accident was tragic. However, we do not agree with the verdict or the damages. Specifically, we do not believe our actions caused the injuries," the company’s statement says. "While we have insurance policies that we believe cover the full amount of this judgment, we will further defend our actions and practices as this case continues."

The court heard how a chemical reaction ignited grain pellets inside the silo sometime in March, sending a strange smell and smoke through the grain elevator complex for six weeks before Jentz, Schmidt and Becker arrived to clean out the silo.

Despite those warning signs and complaints from employees, managers at the site didn't call firefighters to the scene and never warned the three contractors before sending them into the silo to work.

On the day of the incident, a supervisor at the plant told the three workers to pull out their equipment to make way for fire inspectors and was on the phone with the fire department just as the silo exploded, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

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