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Jentz v. Conagra Foods, Inc.: On Personal Injury Cases involving Multiple Defendants

Our personal injury attorneys in Massachusetts know independent contractors who are injured on the job are typically not covered by workers’ compensation insurance and may be required to file a civil lawsuit.

1095707_fire__fire_4.jpgJentz v. Conagra Foods, Inc., a case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, involved a grain bin that exploded in 2010, injuring three workers. The jury, after trial that lasted more than two weeks, awarded plaintiffs $180 million in compensatory and punitive damages. The defendant who owned the grain bin argued that liability should rest with a company hired to fix problems with the bin before the explosion occurred.

The appellate court noted that explosions are a constant danger in grain storage bins. Grain bins produce combustible dust and carbon monoxide that can explosively oxidize to carbon dioxide when a heat source is introduced. Decaying grain can give off enough heat to start the explosive reaction.

Prior to the explosion, company employees noticed a burning smell coming from a bin containing wheat pellets. The company hired defendant, who specialized in fixing “hot bins” at grain storage facilities. The work did not begin immediately because the grain bin owner was trying to get the company to work at a lower rate and started contacting competitors.

Eventually, the work began. The bin repair company hired another company to clean the bins. Two of the injured workers were from the cleaning company, and the other worked for the repair company.

As workers tried to save the wheat pellets, they were in effect ventilating the burning bin. As they removed more and more wheat pellets, it introduced more air and fed the fire. The work crew was then instructed to spray water in the bin and use side tunnel access points to remove more of the pellets. Worker safety was clearly taking a back seat to saving the wheat pellets at this point. By the time firefighters had arrived, the bin had exploded, severely injuring the workers.

At trial, both defendants tried to assert that they did not know this particular bin was a hot bin, but the jury obviously did not believe this, given the situation and eventual verdict, which included punitive damages.

Defendants appealed the verdict, and, on appeal, the court ultimately held that the grain storage owner was not liable for the injuries to the workers. The bin owner had hired a company that marketed itself as a specialist in dealing with problems in hot bins and should have operated in a way that would have kept workers safe. If the grain bin owner told them that they wanted to save as much grain as possible, the contractor could have told the owner that it was not possible to safely do this and refused to send its workers into a dangerous environment to save wheat pellets.

The Court of Appeals did not see any issue with the assignment of liability on the company hired to fix the bin. After making such a finding, there was no longer a need to deal with the indemnification issue that was the primary purpose of the appeal.

If you are injured in an accident in Boston, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Jentz v. Conagra Foods, Inc., September 10, 2014, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
More Blog Entries:

Wilkins v. City of Haverhill – Massachusetts Supreme Court Weighs Slip-and-Fall Claim, May 23, 2014, Boston Personal Injury Attorney Blog