LINCOLN — The Nebraska Supreme Court has upheld a nearly $109 million jury verdict against ConAgra Foods for a 2009 fatal explosion at a North Carolina factory.
The high court unanimously affirmed what is believed to be a record civil judgment in Nebraska following a monthlong trial in 2016. The lawsuit stemmed from a gas explosion that killed three ConAgra employees and a contractor while injuring more than 60 at a Slim Jim plant owned by the company in Garner, North Carolina.
The case was litigated in Douglas County District Court because at the time of the explosion, the Fortune 500 company based its headquarters in Omaha. It has since relocated to Chicago and now goes by Conagra Brands.
“The evidence showed that ConAgra breached the standard of care in the planning and execution of its water heater project,” Supreme Court Judge Jeffrey Funke wrote in the court’s opinion. The explosion ultimately occurred “because of a series of errors committed by ConAgra.”
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ConAgra had retained Jacobs Engineering Group to provide management and engineering support for an industrial water heater installation. The company also hired Energy Systems Analysts, a high-efficiency water heater contractor, to install the system.
Testimony at trial showed ConAgra’s management personnel had supervisory control and decision-making authority over the engineers and contractors assigned to the project. The company’s staff members also had responsibility for enforcement of safety measures.
In addition, Jacobs Engineering agreed to a contract that said the firm would be released from liability for damages due to ConAgra’s negligence or that of others under the company’s control.
Investigations of the explosion determined that it occurred after an employee for the installation contractor failed more than 30 attempts to ignite the water heater and allowed natural gas to escape from a supply line. But testimony indicated that ConAgra’s supervisors were present during the failed ignition attempts and knew gas had leaked into the heater room.
The explosion collapsed the plant’s roof and left surviving workers with severe burns, broken bones and head injuries.
Some 67 individuals filed lawsuits against Jacobs Engineering in North Carolina courts, demanding more than $500 million to settle the cases. After losing $14.6 million in the first case to go to trial, Jacobs agreed to settle the remaining cases.
The engineering firm filed suit in Nebraska against ConAgra to recover the $108.9 million paid in settlements. During the trial overseen by Douglas County District Judge Gary Randall, jurors heard testimony from eight witnesses, 40 videotaped depositions and received 300 exhibits.
Jurors found ConAgra negligent and the contractor partly responsible for the mistakes that led to the explosion. But the jury also determined that because ConAgra controlled the actions of the contractor, it was therefore responsible for the damages.
On appeal, the Supreme Court rejected all of the errors assigned by ConAgra.
The engineering firm was represented by the Cline Williams law firm in Nebraska and Baker Hostetler law firm, which has offices across the country. ConAgra was represented by McGrath North in Nebraska and Kirkland & Ellis, which has offices in multiple states.
After the explosion, ConAgra shut the Slim Jim plant and donated the land, along with $3 million, for a community center.