Local News

ConAgra workers sue Garner, contractors over explosion

Posted April 8, 2010 11:35 a.m. EDT
Updated April 8, 2010 5:55 p.m. EDT

— About two dozen workers at the ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner have filed suit against the town and several contractors and component suppliers, alleging negligence that led to a fatal explosion at the plant last summer.

The suit is the second filed in connection with the June 9 blast at the plant, which killed three ConAgra workers and a contractor who was installing a gas-fired water heater. Last summer, two other workers sued a mechanical contractor that isn't named as a defendant in the new suit.

The workers involved in the new lawsuit all suffered extensive burns and other injuries in the explosion, and they are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Federal investigators determined the explosion was caused by contractors venting natural gas inside the plant while installing the water heater.

The state Department of Labor found 27 workplace safety violations at the plant in a subsequent inspection, and ConAgra agreed to pay a $106,440 fine and implement policy and procedure changes to address potential safety issues with contractors.

ConAgra isn't named as a defendant in either lawsuit.

The new suit, which was filed Tuesday, alleges that Garner inspectors were inside the ConAgra plant the day of the explosion and knew that gas was being improperly vented into the building. Town inspectors also should have known that employees of one of the contractors, Midsouth Industrial Refrigeration Inc., didn't have the proper permits and licenses to work on the gas line in the plant.

Garner spokeswoman Michelle Howell issued a statement Thursday evening calling the suit against the town "improper and without basis."

"It is unfortunate that some have decided to include the town in this matter," Howell said, declining further comment until the town attorney had reviewed the 240-page lawsuit.

In addition to Midsouth Industrial Refrigeration, other contractors and suppliers named as defendants in the new suit are Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., Energy Systems Analysts Inc., Freedom Electric Inc., Fireye Inc., Maxon Corp., Weeks-Williams-Devore Inc., Rockwell Automation Inc., Todd's Maintenance and Construction LLC, Honeywell International Inc., AJ Antunes & Co., Bacharach Inc., Rexel Inc., IMS Metering Holdings, Invensys Metering Systems N.A. Inc., Sensus Metering Systems Inc., Sensus USA Inc. and Sensus (Bermuda 2) Ltd. Inc.

ConAgra officials announced last month that they would close the Garner plant, which makes Slim Jim beef jerky products, by the fall of 2011 and shift production to Ohio.

The company reopened the Garner plant last August, but officials said the damage from the explosion limited production too much.

About 450 jobs will be eliminated when the plant shuts down. The company laid off another 300 workers last fall.