Attorney Jane Leger recalls a memorable case where a worker was seriously burned through no fault of his own. The Ferguson Law Firm went to Georgia to meet with a whistleblower that explained the company told all workers they would fire anyone who talked about the safety measures that were bypassed.
One of the cases that I believe we had the most impact with was a case involving a boiler that blew back and seriously burned a man over about 70% of his body. This man was at work simply doing his job, which required him to walk by a power boiler. These boilers are huge.
This one in particular was about 14 stories. And as he was walking past it, flames shot out of an inspection port. What was remarkable about the event is that nine days earlier, an inspection and insurance company had certified to the state that that boiler was safe to operate. Clearly it wasn’t safe.
He’s walking by it and about a four by six inch inspection port blew open, and just literally a flame like a flamethrower or something you would see in a movie or in war time, this flame pinned him against a wall.
And the reason that he lost his hands is he put his hands up toward his face defensively to protect his face. And by the time it was over, he was seriously burned.
In the Georgia case, initially, it was very hard for us to determine what had happened because nobody was talking and we took several depositions. And we really could not figure out how the fire had made its way out of the boiler because the boiler has not one, but two different safety devices whose whole point is to keep the fire inside the boiler.
So it was, nobody could understand how those safety devices had not operated properly or how the fire was able to escape the boiler. And after we had taken several depositions, it was clear to me that people were scared to tell the truth and that we weren’t getting the whole picture.
And about six months later after we had stopped our first round of depositions, my client called me and said that a gentleman had just retired from the paper mill and that he had some information he wanted to share with his lawyer. So I jumped on a plane and got to Georgia and sat down and met with this man in the lobby of a hotel there.
And he said that what nobody was willing to tell me was that the safety devices had been bypassed because they were difficult to use. And that the company had told everybody that if anybody testified that they had bypassed the safety devices, they would lose their jobs.
And he had carried that with him for almost two years at that point. And it was bothering him that he had information that he knew would be helpful to this injured person’s case. And I asked him how he knew for certain that these safety devices had been bypassed.
And he told me that while my client was still laying on the ground burned before even the first responders had gotten to him to get him to the hospital, that the plant manager had come to him and told him to go and remove the evidence of the bypassed safety devices. So when OSHA got there, they wouldn’t know what they had been doing.
One of the things that the company had offered to us before we tried the case, the first time was a very large settlement, but one of the conditions of the settlement was that we keep all the evidence we had uncovered confidential. And I sat down with my client and talked to him about how the settlement could help him secure his financial future for the rest of his life but there this condition of secrecy.
And he turned down the money and said he wanted to go to trial. And the reason he wanted to go to trial is because he didn’t want anybody else to ever get hurt and have to fight for eight years to uncover the evidence that we had uncovered. He wanted that evidence to be available.
And so we went and tried the case so that all of that evidence could come into the public record. The fact that we tried that case and made that evidence part of the public record, prevented that company from sweeping that evidence under the rug. And now if they do a negligent inspection and somebody gets hurt, it will be easier for them to be held accountable.