$180M for 3 hurt in Ill. grain elevator blast

June 4, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The grain elevator in Chester, Ill., was owned by Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra, one of the nation's biggest food companies.

After 10 hours of deliberations, jurors assessed a total of $100 million in punitive damages that will be split among victims John Jentz of St. Peter, Minn., Robert Schmidt of Hutchinson, Minn., and Justin Becker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Compensatory damages include $41.5 million to Jentz, roughly $34 million to Becker and $2.9 million to Schmidt. Jentz was awarded $1 million in additional punitive damages by Westside Salvage Inc., ConAgra's co-defendant.

The workers say they thought they were going to die in the explosion.

"Everything that we went through and suffered through, you cannot put a price on that," Schmidt said.

According to the lawsuit, the victims were removing equipment from a concrete grain bin at ConAgra's site when the bin exploded.

Jentz's attorney says he suffered burns over close to 80 percent of his body and has had several skin grafts. He says he is in constant pain and unable to work.

"Doctors won't allow me to work," said Jentz. "I have to stay in a control environment."

"My life has changed dramatically," Schmidt said. "Everything just hasn't been the same since."

Attorney Robert Clifford represents Jentz and Schmidt. He says the grain bin had not been properly cleaned in nearly 20 years and the company did not take proper precautions for the workers.

"ConAgra failed to pay attention to the evidence of smoke, of burnt smell throughout their facility in Chester," Clifford said.

Justin Becker suffered several injuries in the explosion.

"His skin and literally his eyes, his cornea had to be transplanted," said Marc Taxman, Becker's attorney. "His eyelids had to be rebuilt. He inhaled a fireball and toxins that burned his lungs ... so he is a 31-year-old man who is devastated and critically injured for the rest of his life."

"There is no amount of money that can take back what happened to me and what I have to live with," said Jentz.

"We don't wish this on anyone ever," said Schimdt.

ConAgra, which vows to appeal the decision, said it does not do not believe their actions caused the injuries.

Westside Salvage says the jury correctly determined that the majority of fault for this explosion and the resulting injuries lies with ConAgra.

The appeal could tie up the settlement money for a while.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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