ConAgra Fights Largest Punitive Claim in Illinois History

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has heard arguments over a $180 million jury verdict in a personal injury case, the largest punitive claim in Illinois history. The defendant companies urged the court to overturn a district court’s judgment or lower the damages award in the grain elevator explosion case.

The case stems from an April 2010 incident in which three men were injured when a grain bin exploded at ConAgra Food Inc.’s grain processing facility in Chester, Illinois. The injured men, Robert Schmidt, John Jentz and Justin Becker, were hired to clean out the bin. The plaintiffs claimed that the container had not been cleaned in 17 years and had begun to smolder.

Becker was an employee of West Side Salvage, a company that ConAgra hired to clean the bin. Schmidt and Jentz were employed by A & J Bin Cleaning, a company that was hired by West Side to help with the cleaning. A & J was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs each filed lawsuits in federal court in southern Illinois, which were later consolidated. The plaintiffs claimed that ConAgra knew the bin was dangerous but failed to take action to make it safe. ConAgra filed a cross-claim for contribution against West Side, claiming that the smaller company was the proximate cause of the plaintiffs’ injuries, in part because a foreman sent Becker and Jentz back into the bin — after it was evacuated but before the explosion — in an attempt to reclaim tools left inside.

All three men suffered severe injuries in the explosion. Jentz sustained serious burns to over 70 percent of his body, and Schmidt suffered second-degree burns on his hands, face and neck.

After a month-long trial, the jury returned a verdict of approximately $180 million in damages, including large punitive damages awards. West Side was ordered to pay about $20 million of the damages ConAgra owed and to pay Jentz $1 million in punitive damages independently.

An attorney for West Side argued before the appeals court that Jentz’s claim for punitive damages against West Side should not have been presented to the jury, because there was no evidence of willful or wanton conduct on the part of West Side.

One of the judges on the appeals panel noted a problem with that argument, stating that a reasonable jury could find that the West Side foreman engaged in willful and wanton conduct in ordering the plaintiffs to go back into the bin to retrieve tools before it exploded, since the container presented an obvious danger.

An attorney for ConAgra, meanwhile, said that the foreman’s decision to send the workers back into the bin broke any chain of causation between ConAgra and the defendants. He argued that, as such, the award against ConAgra should be reversed.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, meanwhile, argued that the trial judge and the jury made the right decision. The award was not excessive, he said, for a case that resulted in “two people burning alive, essentially.”

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