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Jury Awards $181M To Chester Explosion Victims

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EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP)- A federal jury sided against ConAgra Foods Inc. and a subcontractor Friday in awarding roughly $181 million in damages to three workers severely injured in a 2010 explosion at a southern Illinois grain elevator.

Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra, one of the nation’s biggest food companies, swiftly vowed to appeal the outcome of the monthlong trial, calling the accident tragic but insisting “we do not believe our actions caused the injuries.”

“While we have insurance policies that we believe cover the full amount of this judgment, we will further defend our actions and practices as this case continues,” ConAgra said in a statement.

Jurors, after 10 hours of deliberations, 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.

Any such payouts would hinge on the outcome of ConAgra’s planned appeal, which could take months and more likely years to resolve. Crediting the jury as “very deliberative,” an attorney for Becker appeared unfazed by the prospect of a protracted appeal.

“We’re ready, willing and able to fight it as high as we need to take it, and we’re confident this verdict will be affirmed,” attorney Marc Taxman said.

He also called ConAgra’s statement Friday “the first time they’ve shown any remorse in the two years this matter has been pending.”

According to the lawsuit, the victims were removing equipment from a concrete grain bin at ConAgra’s flour-milling site in the Mississippi River city of Chester, about 60 miles southeast of St. Louis, on April 27, 2010, when that bin exploded into flames.

The men’s attorneys argued the bin had not been properly cleaned in nearly two decades and despite an unusual odor, smoke and unusually high temperatures in it, ConAgra failed to properly instruct the workers about precautions that may have averted the explosion.

“I would say a variety of errors were made by each of the companies,” said Kevin Durkin, an attorney for Jentz and Schmidt. “ConAgra had ample information to stop this from happening in the days and weeks before the occurrence.”

Jentz’s burns over three-quarters of his body required various surgeries and skin grafts. Becker sustained facial, hand and eye burns and heat-related damage to his lungs, decreasing his lung function to the point he’s relegated to largely sedentary jobs, Taxman said.

ConAgra’s brands include Banquet, Marie Callender’s, Healthy Choice, Chef Boyardee, Peter Pan and Slim Jim.

ConAgra shares were down 59 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $24.56 in afternoon trading Friday.

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