Industrial Accident – Grain Silo Explosion

$180 Million Jury Verdict Reversed

On Tuesday, September 9th, Patton & Ryan, LLC obtained one of its most significant victories in its 10 year history, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed a $180 million jury verdict and dismissed our client, ConAgra Foods, Inc., outright from the case as a matter of law. The Seventh Circuit also upheld the $3 million awarded to ConAgra in its property damage claim. Finally, as if this victory wasn’t stunning enough, the Court also affirmed ConAgra’s judgment against West Side for indemnification allowing ConAgra to pursue its attorney fees incurred in its defense.

In the summer of 2012, the consolidated cases of John Jentz, Robert Schmidt and Justin and Amber Becker versus ConAgra Foods, Inc. and West Side Salvage, Inc., went to the jury in the US District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in East St. Louis.  The case arose out of a grain bin explosion which seriously burned the three Plaintiffs. ConAgra hired West Side to remediate the “hot bin”.  The three Plaintiffs, who either worked for West Side or its subcontractor, A&J Bin Cleaning, had been working on the bin for seven days before the explosion.  The stable of nationally renowned Plaintiffs’ attorneys was led by Bob Clifford, who personally handled pre-trial settlement negotiations as well as the trial.  John W. Patton, Jr. was hired after the close of discovery and on the eve of trial to lead the defense team for ConAgra. The trial was hotly contested for 17 days, with testimony from scores of witnesses and experts and thousands of exhibits.  The jury returned its verdict, awarding the Plaintiffs $80 million in compensatory damages, apportioning 54% to ConAgra and 46% to West Side.  The jury also awarded $100 million in punitive damages against ConAgra.

Both Defendants appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and oral arguments were heard on October 2, 2013 before the three judge panel of Judges Easterbrook, Manion and Rovner, before a packed courtroom.  Tuesday, September 9th, 11 months after oral arguments, the Court issued its unanimous opinion, finding  “…someone who engages an independent contractor to redress an unsafe condition is not liable when the feared event occurs.”   Patton & Ryan raised this specific defense at trial and in a Rule 50 motion at the close of Plaintiffs’ cases, but the trial judge denied it. John Patton concentrated his cross exam of the witnesses and experts to develop this trial strategy not only to win the case before the jury but also to establish a strong record in the event of an appeal. Relying upon the factual record and legal arguments raised, The Seventh Circuit reversed the jury’s verdict and the rulings by the trial court, thereby dismissing all causes of action against ConAgra and awarding ConAgra its costs of defense.

The entire punitive and compensatory awards against ConAgra are now reversed based upon Illinois state law. Further, ConAgra’s actions against West Side have been affirmed. ConAgra will now recover its costs and attorney fees in defending this highly sympathetic and challenging catastrophic loss trial.

This case is illustrative of the legal representation and litigation acumen demonstrated by the law firm of   Patton & Ryan.  The firm is committed to representing its clients skillfully and zealously nationwide from the case’s inception and on the eve of trial.

Please see the attached front page article published by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin for further information.

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