Williams restarts Geismar plant closed by 2013 explosion _lowres

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Chemicals burn following a plant explosion at Williams Geismar Olefins plant.

PLAQUEMINE — Four men injured in the 2013 explosion at the Williams Olefins Geismar plant were awarded a total of $13.6 million in damages after an Iberville Parish jury late Monday night ruled the company, several plant officials and its parent company were negligent and knew with substantial certainty that the deadly fire could occur.

The jury rendered its verdict after five hours of deliberation in the three-week trial in the first of several lawsuits related to the incident that killed two people and injured 114 workers.

"For a month they were trying to shift blame onto their shell company (Williams Olefins) and I'm glad the jury saw right through it," Kurt Arnold, attorney for the plaintiffs, said after Monday night's verdict.

The jury found that Williams' Oklahoma-based parent company was 95 percent responsible for the explosion and Williams Olefins was 3 percent to blame. The jury apportioned 1 percent of the blame on plant official Parker Tucker and 1 percent for plant supervisor Larry Bayer, who were also named defendants in the lawsuit. The jury absolved defendant Erick Comeaux, a plant official.

Plaintiff Shawn Thomas will receive the highest payout in damages, awarded $9.4 million for past and future medical bills, lost wages and mental anguish, and pain and suffering. Kris Devall was awarded $3.6 million and Eduardo Elizondo and Michael Dantone were awarded $360,000 and $205,000, respectively.

The company, in a written statement issued after the verdict, says it plans to appeal: "Nothing about the tragic accident at the Williams Olefins facility in Geismar on June 13, 2013 was intentional. We believe there is sufficient Louisiana case law that supports our legal position, and we will appeal the jury verdict rendered in the 18th Judicial District Court."

In their closing arguments, attorneys for the four men asserted Williams Olefins administrative leaders and plant managers had some idea an explosion could occur, ignoring for seven years warnings that could have prevented the tragedy at the facility, which straddles the Ascension-Iberville line.

"This accident doesn't happen if the board of directors and CEOs heeded the warnings they were told," Arnold told the jurors.

But the jury was asked by defense attorneys to view the decisions and actions of the company and its plant officials as a mistake they never intended to happen.

"This case is not about responsibility. Williams Olefins already accepted responsibility," defense attorney Glenn Farnet said. "It was a horrible mistake. Human beings make mistakes. Mistakes are not intent."

Farnet asserted that in order for the plaintiffs to argue intent Williams' officials would have had to have known three sequential factors would occur on the day of the explosion.

"The scenario that happened that morning had never happened in 13 years because it was an unusual scenario," he said.

The plaintiffs contended that Williams, key management figures and others had known for years that one of two reboilers used in the refinery process was isolated from pressure relief — which meant there was a risk of over-pressurization and explosion.

Both sides admitted in the court the explosion could have been prevented if car seals, costing less than $5, were tied onto the rebroiler valves. But defense attorneys claimed corporate officials were under the assumption the safety measures had been followed based on what they were told by plant managers.

Much of the debate during the three-week trial centered on the whether Williams' Oklahoma-based corporate headquarters should bear much of the responsibility for the explosion since its administrative leaders must sign off on many of the day-to-day decisions made at the Geismar facility by the plant managers who work for its limited liability company, Williams Olefins.

"Williams Olefins stood up here and took the blame, but that wasn't enough," said Jim Reed, the attorney representing two of the parent companies named in the lawsuit. "Sometimes the truth is very simple. Lawyers complicate things."

Arnold, the plaintiffs attorney, asserted in court Monday that Williams should bear 90 percent of the responsibility for the plant explosion and Williams Olefins should take 4 percent of the blame. The remaining liability should be apportioned among the remaining defendants, he said.

Arnold asked the jury to award Thomas and Devall $12.1 million each to cover past and future medical bills, lost wages and mental and physical suffering since the explosion.

Arnold asked that Elizondo and Dantone get at least $1.6 million and $835,364, respectively, for past and future medical expenses and lost wages. He left it to the jury to determine what additional money, if any, the two men should receive for past and future mental anguish and pain and suffering.

But Randy Cangelosi, one of several attorneys arguing on behalf of Williams, said some of the plaintiffs exaggerated their injuries while others had pre-existing conditions or weren't injured severely enough to prevent them from getting high-paying jobs in the future.

"This case is about what's fair and reasonable. It's not about punishing any company," he told the jury.

Cangelosi said Dantone should receive between $65,000 to $80,000 in damages, Elizondo somewhere in the range of $65,000 to $80,000, Thomas between $1.4 million to $1.7 million and Devall's payout should fall somewhere between $400,000 to $925,000.

Tony Clayton, another attorney for plaintiffs, told the jurors that Williams should not be allowed to injure its employees and then turn around and determine how much money the workers should receive for their injuries.

"Your verdict will be a historical marker of how (these plants) conduct themselves in the future," Clayton said in his closing arguments. "If they're man enough to come here and make profits off of us, then they need to be man enough to pay for their substantial mistakes."

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.