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 — Attorneys representing four of the men injured in the 2013 Geismar explosion alleged in court Wednesday that high-ranking officials with Williams Olefins, its parent companies and key management at the facility had for seven years ignored information that could have prevented the deadly fire.

Those attorneys also accused the plant's parent company of playing "a shell game" in attempt to shift blame for the explosion that killed two people and injured 114 workers. 

"This is not hindsight. These individuals knew from the beginning — and the fix was easy," attorney Kurt Arnold told jurors during opening statements for his clients' lawsuit against various corporate entities tied to the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Williams and three key management officials at the plant.

"This isn't someone driving down the road who looked around and got distracted," Arnold argued in state district court in Plaquemine. "This is someone who knew they had to drive 35 miles and left with only five gallons of gas."

In their rebuttal, defense attorneys asserted their clients would never intentionally do anything that could kill or seriously injure their employees. 

In a prepared statement released Wednesday by Williams Olefins, spokesman Keith Isbell added, "The theory that Williams Olefins intended this accident to occur defies common sense. The facts show the incident was caused by an unfortunate alignment of distinct factors that had never occurred in the history of the facility."

Williams Olefins attorney Jim Dore even admitted in court the limited liability company which oversees the day-to-day operation of the Geismar plant has accepted responsibility for the explosion but said it was caused by negligence in preventive maintenance, not the intentional disregard the plaintiffs are alleging.

"They did not know, and that's what this is about," Dore told the jury. 

The Williams Olefins' plant straddles the Ascension-Iberville line, which is why the incident has spawned various lawsuits in both parishes. 

In the Iberville lawsuit, plaintiffs Eduardo Elizondo, Michael Dantone, Kris Devall and Shawn Thomas contend that Williams, key management figures, and others had known for years of a critical safety defect in the plant’s operations.

In addition to various corporate entities tied to Williams, Geismar plant officials Erick Comeaux, Parker Tucker and plant supervisor Larry Bayer, the plant supervisor, are named defendants.

Arnold claimed the defendants knew 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. Williams knew about this problem for several years, the attorney alleged, they understood the risk, and yet did nothing to fix the issue, which he said would have only taken "five minutes and $5 dollars." 

"All they had to do what go in and place a car seal on the reboiler valves," he said. 

Arnold promised to introduce inter-office documents and emails during the trial, which is expected to last two weeks, showing how key management figures with Williams and Williams Olefins ignored warnings from at least two outside agencies highlighting the dangers surrounding the reboilers in separate safety reports issued between 2006 and 2010. 

Arnold also argued that blame for the explosion shouldn't be placed on Williams Olefins since nearly every decision regarding the plant's day-to-day operation must first be approved by administrative officials at its corporate headquarters in Tulsa.   

"Williams Company Inc. is saying, 'It's not me. That's down at the plant.' But the safety chain for the plant doesn't go through plant management, it goes to Tulsa," Arnold said. 

Jim Reed, the attorney representing two of the parent companies named in the lawsuit, in his opening remarks used Arnold's "shell game" analogy by reminding jurors that Williams Olefins' had already accepted responsibility for the explosion. "If that's a corporate shell game, we are the worst players," Reed said. 

Reed said Williams corporate structure is not uncommon and ensures efficiency when handling managerial matters at the hundreds of subsidiaries under the company's umbrella. But Reed noted that all day-to-day decisions for its various operations are made by onsite management staff, not the company's corporate leaders.   

"(The plaintiffs) are not satisfied with the company that has taken liability for this so they just started suing people and went on up to the top," Reed told the jury. "What you have here is a desperate attempt to find someone else to blame. It's not a shell game, it's a blame game."

Defense attorney Mike Walsh, who represents the three named officials, said those men would never intentionally overlook safety measures at the facility since they too could be hurt while working there.

"Everybody wants to go home at night. Everybody wants to be safe," Walsh said. "My guys are good people."

The trial is expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. Thursday with plaintiffs calling their first witness in the case.  

Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.