Jury in Williams Olefins plant explosion case awards $16 million more

BY TERRY L. JONES | TJONES@THEADVOCATE.COM NOV 16, 2016 – 5:15 PM

An energy company’s payout to workers injured in the 2013 explosion at the Williams Olefins Geismar plant reached nearly $30 million this week following a jury’s verdict in a second trial related to the disaster.

On Tuesday, Williams Company Inc. was found by a jury to be primarily responsible for the plant fire that killed two people and injured 114 workers. Four of those workers were awarded damages totaling nearly $16 million in the second lawsuit that has gone to trial since the incident.

Four men in September have already been awarded judgments totaling approximately $13.6 million for injuries they sustained in the deadly blast.

Tony Clayton, one of several attorneys who has represented the plaintiffs in both lawsuits, said the outcome in the latest trial, which played out this month at the courthouse in West Baton Rouge Parish, should send the clear message to the plant’s parent company their negligence in causing the explosion will cost them dearly.

“Juries continue to pound in their heads that they have to operate this plant safely,” Clayton said Wednesday.

The second jury assigned 83 percent of the liability for the explosion to Williams Company, Inc., an Oklahoma-based company, and 16 percent of the blame to Sabic Petrochemicals, a Saudi energy company that was added as a co-defendent in the latest lawsuit. Two top-ranking officials at the plant were each assigned 0.2 percent of the blame while a third defendant named in the lawsuit was absolved again.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys presented many of the same arguments in the second lawsuit that helped them win their case the first time. They argued 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.

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

In the second lawsuit, plaintiff Bryon Cotton will get damages totaling approximately $3.7 million for past and future medical bills, lost wages and mental anguish, and pain and suffering. Veronica Sowell was awarded about $4.5 million, Paul Thompson was awarded $5.7 million and Dakota Kelley is set to receive about $1.9 million in total damages.

“Williams Companies Inc. cannot accept fault for the Geismar plant explosion without taking full responsibility for it, and that means providing full compensation to the workers they hurt,” Kurt Arnold, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “Twice they’ve left it up to a jury to decide what is reasonable, and juries have awarded a combined $30 million for the FIRST eight workers who have taken their case to trial.”