Local News

Workers sue contractor over plant explosion

Posted June 15, 2009
Updated June 16, 2009

The roof of a Garner food plant collapsed Tuesday morning, June 9, 2009. The 425,454-square-foot ConAgra Foods plant is at 4851 Jones Sausage Road.
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— Two ConAgra Foods workers injured in a plant explosion last week filed suit Monday against a mechanical contractor, blaming the company for the accident.

Leonard Spruill of Selma and Tammie O'Neal of Zebulon are seeking unspecified damages in the suit against Southern Industrial Constructors Inc.

Two ConAgra workers file lawsuit Two ConAgra workers file lawsuit

"The one way we can be sure we will be able to preserve the evidence that is there is by filing a lawsuit,” said David Stradley, a Raleigh lawyer representing Spruill and O'Neal.

Southern Industrial, a Raleigh-based mechanical contractor was installing equipment in ConAgra's plant in Garner, and crews either used natural gas in the installation or the equipment was fueled by natural gas, according to the lawsuit.

"It looks like they were installing some sort of custom industrial hot-water heater at the time (of the blast),” Stradley said.

The suit alleges that the contractor's crews either installed the equipment incorrectly or damaged the gas lines, allowing gas to leak into the plant.

"You don't have a natural gas explosion without something going wrong," Stradley said.

Investigators have determined that a natural gas leak sparked an explosion last Tuesday that blew out a wall of the 425,000-square-foot plant and punched holes in the roof. Three workers were killed, and dozens of others were burned or injured by falling debris.

Southern Industrial President John Wilson said the company had five employees working under the supervision of ConAgra's maintenance department. Although Stradley said building permits indicated Southern Industrial employees were installing natural gas-fired water heaters, Wilson said: "We've never installed a water heater at ConAgra."

"We believe it's all fabricated, at least in terms of our involvement," Wilson told The Associated Press.

Inspectors have reviewed Southern Industrial's operations seven times over the last 20 years and have cited the company three times for violations.

In 2005, the company was cited twice for not having personal protective equipment and was fined $875. The preceding year, a $2,250 fine was issued for a violation dealing with cranes. In 2002, inspectors found two violations dealing with rigging equipment at a state port and issued a $688 fine.

Southern Industrial boasts on its Web site that it has had no on-the-job fatalities during the past five years and that it has also won regional safety awards.

Spruill suffered burns on his head, arms and hands in the explosion, while O'Neal suffered injuries to her head, back and leg, according to the suit.

O'Neal is out of the hospital but still using crutches. Spruill is still being treated for burns at the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.


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  • discowhale Jun 16, 2009

    Race card? Race means nothing when there's an insurance company to abuse, right?

    This is typical behavior in the United States of the Litigious. And race doesn't enter into it. The "offended / injured / mentally scarred" look for a way to get money from the "insurance companies". Without ever looking at the big picture of Con-Agra's working costs increasing, via increased insurance rates, causing them to close the plant or not rebuild to the old level. A few people, or ALL the people lose their jobs, but if you get a few years salary in the settlement, fernerk those other guys, right?

    ONLY those who were hurt physically deserve money. Plain and simple.

  • radixlecti Jun 16, 2009

    "The truth of the matter is that since this was a industrial accident and most of those affected are minorities you think they don’t deserve compensation. I bet if this accident had occurred down town Raleigh most if not all on this line would be singing a different tune."

    That's more than a bit presumptious to assume. I personally don't care what color people are, I am simply talking about the opportunistic individuals who were not hurt. And frankly I'm tired of hearing the race card getting played every time something happens. Leave it alone.

  • FoxtrotUniformCharlieKiloakaCALM Jun 16, 2009

    I hope whomever is being sued read the part in one of these articles about one employee claiming they smelled an odor earlier. That's negligence on the employee not to report a problem. Gas leaks happen, even in private homes due to no fault of anyone.

  • hawkbruc Jun 16, 2009

    I would like to know who was on the crew for the contractor installing the heater and what their qualifications were . Even though I do not know , but since NC is sanctuary state for illegal aliens , I would guess that English was not their form of communication .

  • FromClayton Jun 16, 2009

    go get that money folks. you have the right to work in a safe environment. when careless or incompent companies compramise your right to safety, they should have to pay. good luck!

  • SME2 Jun 16, 2009

    "and ask yourself, if your wife/husband/ child had been killed or injured, would you sue?" - dbcooper41

    No I would not sue and I would not wish the death penalty on anyone either.

  • dbcooper41 Jun 16, 2009

    why do you people get so down on them for sueing? if you wait, evidence may be lost or destroyed. someone made a huge mistake, blew up a building and it cost people their health or lives. let them pay. that's why they have insurance. i don't think workman's comp covers this unless being blown up is in your job description.
    and ask yourself, if your wife/husband/ child had been killed or injured, would you sue?

  • SME2 Jun 16, 2009

    "That sure didn't take long! ConAgra has indicated they will take care of their employees...so the employees go after a subcontractor. There is no limit to some people's greed."-Deb1003

    Once they stop working there or ConAgra decides not to rebuild...they'll be coming out of the woodwork for them. Like a bunch of roaches!

  • SME2 Jun 16, 2009

    "The truth of the matter is that since this was a industrial accident and most of those affected are minorities you think they don’t deserve compensation." - mrduright

    I am surprised it took someone this long to say "It's Got To Be About Race!"

  • time4real Jun 16, 2009

    where's John Edwards when you need him.
    Oh, that's right.