GONZALES — The last two plaintiffs injured in a June 2013 nitrogen gas explosion at the CF Industries fertilizer complex near Donaldsonville reached undisclosed, multi-million dollar settlements with Cetco Energy Services and Airgas over the deadly incident at the Mississippi River plant.
The confidential settlements for then-CF employees Melvin Singleton and Kade Yarbrough were reached after attorneys finished closing statements in a three-week Ascension Parish jury trial, court transcripts say.
"This resolves the entire litigation. There are no more defendants. The case is over," plaintiff's attorney Andre' Gauthier said Monday.
But the settlements for these plaintiffs and for others over the past few years, attorneys said, means no court has ruled on liability in the blast that federal authorities concluded killed one worker and injured eight others. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration previously cited and fined CF Industries and Cetco Energy of Harvey, online records say.
Authorities have said a pressure vessel, or manifold, designed to distribute nitrogen gas from a gas tanker truck to the industrial facility ruptured, sending out deadly metal shrapnel and a blast wave. Cetco was delivering nitrogen to the plant under a contract Airgas had with CF Industries. An inert gas, the nitrogen was being used to purge air from a CF ammonia reactor and keep a catalyst in the reactor from igniting, court papers say.
Plaintiff’s attorneys Gauthier, Jody Amedee and Rob Marionneaux had sought to prove that Cetco and Airgas were at fault for the blast due to Cetco's failure to use safe equipment and to monitor the gas delivery process during the tail end of the job. CF Industries, which was doing repairs to the ammonia reactor, had just terminated Cetco's services due to two near-accidents the previous two days. Cetco and CF employees were finishing a final delivery and in the process of gradually switching out Cetco's pumper truck when the blast happened, court papers say.
The suits claim Singleton and Yarbrough suffered serious injuries from the rupture, which did not produce fire but flying metal.
Gauthier, who represented Singleton with partner Amedee, said the defendants had sought to settle from the earliest days in the case, before trial and during the trial, steadily increasing the offer.
“We continued to push, and the jury went into deliberation and all I can tell is while the jury started deliberating, after that trial, that case got settled,” Gauthier said.
Minutes show Singleton’s settlement with Cetco and Airgas was reached about two and a half hours into jury deliberation late Thursday night. Yarbrough’s settlement came shortly after closing arguments but before the jury retired for deliberation.
Gauthier and Amedee said they could not discuss the terms of Singleton’s settlement due to a confidentiality agreement. Yarbrough was represented by Marionneaux, who didn’t return calls Friday and Monday.
John Baay, who represented Cetco, declined to comment, citing the settlement’s confidentiality. Betsy Kamin, who represented Airgas, did not return by Monday a message left at her office in Texas.
According to court minutes, both settlements were read out loud into the record late Thursday, but court officials refused to provide minutes, transcripts or other documents detailing the settlements, citing the confidentiality agreements.
Two people who wished to remain anonymous but were present in the courtroom Thursday night said Singleton received $6.5 million. A third source, who also wished to remain anonymous and has knowledge of both settlements, said that Yarbrough received $2.5 million.
Singleton and Yarbrough had previously reached out-of-court, pretrial settlements with other named defendants, including Mercer Valve Co., Standard Instrument Service and CS&P Technologies, Gauthier said. CF Industries and The Hartford insurance paid workers' compensation claims for CF's injured employees. As a result of the new settlements, CF's insurer must be reimbursed from the settlement funds, Gauthier said.
Four other injured plaintiffs were contractors working on the ammonia reactor.
The family of Ronald J. “Rocky” Morris Jr., a longtime CF Industries worker from Donaldsonville who was killed in the blast by flying metal, settled their case more than two years ago.
In response to the plaintiffs’ accusations, Cetco and Airgas argued that CF Industries made a hasty and unsafe decision to replace Cetco in the middle of a turnaround with nitrogen gas still being pumped. Morris and other CF employees failed to do a hazard analysis in advance of the switch, pretrial court papers say.
A miscommunication between Yarbrough, and Morris and Singleton led Morris to close a last key valve on the manifold. The truck was still pumping gas into the manifold at the time, eventually causing the pressure vessel to fail, the companies alleged.
Gauthier said the plaintiff’s team argued that the Cetco driver, Harold “Rock” McGrew, was not in the pumper truck and was using his cellphone in another truck 100 to 200 feet away while the pressure was rising dangerously in the manifold.
McGrew disputed that claim during a pretrial interview under oath, saying he didn’t use the phone until he left the plant. He was then presented with his subpoenaed cellphone records, which showed he was on the phone minutes before the rupture, Gauthier said.
McGrew later acknowledged in another pretrial interview and then in court that he was using the phone but said he was in the pumper truck.
The plaintiffs put on evidence suggesting the pressure vessel was old and corroded, had poorly laid welds on key connection points, had little certification or inspection history and ruptured well below its maximum rated pressure, Gauthier said.
Gauthier said jurors saw pictures of the ruptured vessel’s corroded interior and heard Cetco employees testify that the only inspection and certification paperwork they could find was a single page dating from 2006.
A defense expert argued, however, that a pressure release valve, a safety device, opened on the manifold and the escaping high-pressure gas caused the vessel to tumble and rupture, Gauthier said.