Millions awarded to 7 ConAgra workers injured in 2009 explosion

rgahallager@newsobserver.com April 20, 2012 

— A Superior Court jury in Johnston County has awarded a total of $14.6 million in damages for medical care, lost wages and other factors to seven people hurt in the June 2009 explosion at the now-abandoned ConAgra Slim Jim factory in Garner.

The panel will return in June to consider punitive damages against Jacobs Engineering, Group Inc., the company blamed for the blast, and one of its employees. Federal investigators determined the explosion happened while Jacobs Engineering workers were purging a gas line and installing water heaters.

The jury awarded more than $12 million to two former ConAgra workers, Leonard Spruill and Anthony Smith. Spruill, who was severely burned in the June 9 blast, was awarded $7.5 million. Smith was awarded $4.5 million. The other five plaintiffs were awarded amounts that ranged from $313,246 to $959,785, according to court documents.

The verdicts were dated April 13.

Jacobs employee Donald Pottner, who also was named in the lawsuit, left court and the state during the trial. Pottner was on the stand when court recessed on March 20 and was to have returned to continue testimony the next morning. Instead, he spent three days at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh where, after numerous tests, doctors prescribed an over-the-counter remedy for headaches and released him. Judge Robert H. Hobgood noted in court papers that Pottner was still under subpoena on March 24 when “he went home to Wisconsin” and has not returned.

As a result, Hobgood threw out papers that Jacobs and Pottner had filed after being sued.

When the injured workers sued shortly after the explosion, they had included several companies that had workers at the Slim Jim plant the day it blew up. Those claims eventually were dismissed, however, and the case came down to Jacobs and Pottner.

Three people died in the explosion – Barbara McLean Spears of Dunn, Lewis Junior Watson of Clayton and Rachel Mae Poston Pulley of Clayton. Another 38 of the 300 workers at the plant were hurt.

Gallagher: 919-829-4572

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