TXI: Guilty. Now, Hand Over $20 Million.
Since there have been rumblings about mayoral candidate Sam Coats sitting on the board of Texas Industries, the infamous Midlothian cement-manufacturing plant that's been condemned by environmentalists for burning hazardous waste, we thought we'd let you know that today, TXI lost a court battle with a former contractor's family -- to the tune of nearly $20 million.
Basically, the jury determined that the company was to blame for the 2003 death of Gordon Rutherford, a 34-year-old man from Waxahachie who was engulfed in flames when 5.5 tons of combustible plastics caught fire. After a three-week trial, a Dallas jury awarded the contractor's widow $18.9 million, concluding, according to a press release, that "TXI acted with negligence and recklessness."
After the jump, the complete press release, if you want to read about the horrenous details of the welder's death, and the nuts and bolts of the case. --Megan Feldman
Jury Returns $18.9 Million Wrongful Death Verdict Against TXI
DALLAS -- The widow of a man killed in an explosion at a TXI facility in Midlothian, Texas was awarded $18.9 million by a Dallas jury today, culminating a 3-week-long trial. The jury deliberated for almost two days before returning the unanimous verdict against Dallas-based TXI, one of the nation's largest producers of bagged cement.
Gordon Rutherford, 34, of Waxahachie, Texas, was killed in January 2003 while employed by Circle 4M Welding, a TXI contractor. According to the lawsuit filed by his wife, Amy, TXI directed Rutherford and a crew of three other welders to work in a location 90 feet in the air near an environmental scrubber that contained 5.5 tons of combustible plastic. During the course of the work, the combustible plastics caught on fire and engulfed Rutherford who was standing in the basket of a crane. Following the explosion, the crane holding Rutherford in the air would not operate, leaving Rutherford suspended in the air on fire, resulting in his death.
The suit charged TXI with negligence and recklessness in sending Rutherford and the other welders to work in this area without warning them of the danger presented by the nearby plastic that TXI knew was combustible. The other workers sustained burn injuries of varying severity and one was hospitalized.
"TXI ignored basic safety principles and their own policies and procedures by sending this team into work near a large fire hazard." said Michael Heygood of the law firm Heygood, Orr, Reyes & Bartolomei, attorney for Ms. Rutherford. "This trial was about determining how seriously companies should take plant safety. After hearing evidence for almost three weeks, the jury rejected the notion that industrial plants can maintain a blind eye to the dangers their workers face," he said.
During the trial, Mrs. Rutherford's attorneys alleged that TXI knew about the combustible nature of the plastic in the scrubber, due to a previous incident 18 months earlier when the plastic overheated and melted. A representative of the company that manufactured the plastic testified that he had previously recommended that TXI replace the plastic in the scrubber with stainless steel for many reasons, including the danger of overheating. However, given the additional costs involved, TXI decided to reject such recommendation.
In addition, attorneys pointed to the fact that plant safety managers were inexperienced in the safety issues involving large industrial plants, having never held a job in safety prior to being hired by TXI.
"As a result of this verdict, industrial plants hopefully will understand the need to ensure they hire experienced safety professionals to overlook the operations of their facilities. Mrs. Rutherford hopes this verdict will save other lives," said Robert Lee of Lee & Braziel, co-counsel for Mrs. Rutherford.
TXI was represented in the case by Charles Hurd and Lee Thibodeaux with the Houston office of Fulbright & Jaworski.