April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Adair Grain Inc., the owner of the fertilizer plant that exploded last week in West, Texas, was sued by townspeople and insurance firms seeking damages over the deadly blast.
At least 33 residents of the small town and four local insurance agencies are suing the family-owned company, according to court records and the victims’ lawyers. The April 17 explosion killed at least 14, injured more than 200 and damaged more than 70 homes and businesses in a five-block area.
“We filed quickly for one reason -- to be able to participate in the investigation as soon as the federal government releases the scene,” said Paul Grinke, a Dallas lawyer who filed a lawsuit April 19 in state court in Waco on behalf of four local insurance agencies and 17 of their customers. “The calls just keep coming in. We’re over 30 individual clients now, including some who were uninsured.”
Longtime West residents Bridgett and Roger Bowles filed suit against the plant owners today, seeking compensation for “extensive’’ damage to their home in the blast zone and personal injuries.
Roger Bowles was in the couple’s home with their grandson when the explosion lifted the roof and covered them with ceiling debris, they said. Bridgett Bowles, who was in a nearby public park, was thrown off her feet.
“Her cell phone was found 150 feet from where she stood at the time of the explosion,’’ Jason Gibson, her lawyer, said today by e-mail. Her eardrum burst, her jaw was broken, and several teeth were knocked loose, requiring that her mouth be wired shut, he said.
All of the lawsuits filed so far accuse the plant owners of negligently failing to train and supervise employees adequately in the storage and handling of a volatile, toxic material such as ammonium nitrate, a common building block of fertilizers. The Bowleses’ complaint claims the facility hadn’t “undergone a full safety inspection by regulators since 1985.”
Andrea Jones Gutierrez, a 40-year-old single mother, sued the plant owner in a separate action for the loss of “all her worldly possessions,” physical injuries and emotional distress. She lived across the street from the West Fertilizer Co., in the apartment complex destroyed in the blast.
“Looking at the pictures of that apartment complex, it’s hard to think anyone would be alive, and I believe there may be some fatalities there,” Randy Roberts, Gutierrez’s lawyer, said yesterday in a phone interview. “When Andrea first heard the commotion, she stepped outside on the side of the complex opposite from the plant just at the moment of the explosion, and the building shielded her from the brunt of the blast. Fortunately, her son was at church at the time, or he wouldn’t be here today.”
Daniel Keeney, a spokesman for West Fertilizer Co., said the company isn’t commenting on pending litigation.
“Our focus remains on the fact finding,” he said. “We continue to do everything we can to understand what happened to ensure nothing like this ever happens again in any community. To that end, the owners and staff of West Fertilizer are working closely with investigating agencies. We have encouraged all employees to assist in the fact finding to whatever degree possible.”
Roberts said he “seriously doubts” that Donald and Wanda Adair, who own the fertilizer plant and its Adair Grain parent company, have enough personal or corporate assets to cover all the blast damages.
No ‘Corporate Network’
“There’s not any sprawling corporate network behind Adair Grain,” Roberts said. “I’d be surprised if there’s enough.”
Grinke said his firm’s research indicates the plant may have had only a $1 million primary insurance policy.
“I’ve not been made aware of any umbrella policy or excess insurance coverage,” he said. “This was a mom-and-pop shop.”
At least nine of the 14 victims killed in the blast were first responders, Grinke said, and their families may be entitled to compensation from the U.S. government.
Grinke said many residents of West, a Central Texas farming community located about 20 miles from Waco, are rallying around the Adair family, with no apparent desire to sue a respected neighbor.
“I have no smoking gun” that proves the Adairs made mistakes that caused the blast, Grinke said. “I’ll go wherever the evidence leads, and if the evidence proves Mr. Adair had nothing to do with it, I’ll be the first to dismiss my suit.”
The cases are Acadia Insurance v. Adair Grain Inc., 2013- 1646-5, and Gutierrez v. Adair Grain, 2013-1653-5, 414th District Court of McLennan County, Texas (Waco); and Bowles v. Adair Grain, 2013-1697-4, 170th District Court of McLennan County, Texas (Waco).
--With assistance from Jef Feeley in Wilmington, Delaware, and Mike Lee in Dallas. Editors: Peter Blumberg, Michael Hytha