Jury Verdict Reinstated In Lawsuit Over Plant Explosion

On July 5, 1999, an industrial explosion occurred at the Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. plant in Gramercy, La. Injuring several people and damaging the plant and some surrounding businesses. A lawsuit by one of Kaiser's injured employees, Terrence Hayes, went to trial, as did a lawsuit by Kaiser to collect uninsured losses caused by the explosion. The defendants included the company that designed the electrical system and the electrical contractor that worked at the plant. Thomas & Betts Corp., manufacturer of adhesive mounts, called sticky-backs, used to route electrical wiring, also was sued.

Kaiser said the explosion was caused by a power failure, and blamed the various defendants for improperly installing a handful of adhesive-backed cable-tie mounting bases (the sticky-backs) in high-voltage switchgear in an electrical building.

Kaiser charged that the company that designed the electrical system was negligent, that the electrical contractor was negligent for using sticky-backs, and that Thomas & Betts Corp. was liable for failing to warn contractors about the limitations inherent in the sticky-backs. They are designed for temporary use.

After a trial, the Louisiana jury absolved Thomas & Betts, but found that Kaiser, the electrical designer and the electrical contractor all were at fault. The jury awarded $20 million to Hayes, the injured Kaiser employee, and denied Kaiser's claims for damages against the other defendants.

However, the trial judge overturned the verdict, finding that it was not based on the evidence presented at trial. The judge found Thomas & Betts at fault for 25 percent of the damages. He reduced the percentage of fault for Kaiser and the electrical system designer, ruling that Kaiser was entitled to $335 million for the damages to its plant, and maintained the award of $20 million to Hayes. Thomas & Betts appealed to the Louisiana Court of Appeal, arguing that the evidence at trial supported the jury's decision exonerating it of liability. That court noted that the evidence showed that William Philyaw, an employee of the electrical contractor, had bought the Thomas & Betts sticky-backs and used them to attach low-voltage wires in a switchgear cabinet. Although Philyaw denied knowing that the sticky-backs might loosen, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could find that he was aware of that possibility.

According to the court, evidence supported the jury's decision to absolve Thomas & Betts of liability. The court concluded that the trial judge should not have overturned the jury's verdict, and reinstated it, including the ruling against Kaiser.

Gramercy Plant Explosion at Kaiser, 927 So.2d 492 (La.App. 2006), Court of Appeal of Louisiana, March 28, 2006.
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