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Survivors of deadly PCA DeRidder paper mill explosion win $141 million award in lawsuit

Nine survivors of a deadly 2017 paper mill explosion in DeRidder, Louisiana have won a record $141 million award for the Middle District of Louisiana in a lawsuit filed after the fatal blast at the Packaging Corporation of America mill.

The law firm of Arnold & Itkin represents the nine workers. It tried the case in Baton Rouge and the jury returned with its decision April 24. The Baton Rouge jury awarded more than $104 million to the survivors of the February 8, 2017 explosion that ripped through a paper mill operated by Packaging Corporation of America. It claimed the lives of three workers: William Rolls, Jr., 32; Sedrick Stallworth, 42; and Jody L. Gooch, 40. PCA officials say that all three were contractors at the plant. Gooch was from Newton County, according to then Sheriff Billy Rowles. Several others were hurt.

The total liability for the defendants, including interest that accrued, amounted to $141 million, said attorney Kyle Findley.

"For over seven years, the defendants refused to take responsibility for their actions, and they never made a reasonable offer that would come close to compensating our clients for the life-altering injuries they sustained," said Findley. "It took a jury to finally hold the defendants accountable and finally bring justice for this incident, which was totally preventable had proper procedures been followed."

The verdict set a record for recovery for a personal injury case obtained in the United States District Middle District of Louisiana, according to Findley.

The law firm says the Baton Rouge trial dealt with nine of those injured workers who were at the plant, who suffered orthopedic injuries and mental health injuries as a result of the explosion. At trial, evidence came out that the explosion occurred because the foul condensate tank was not drained and purged in accordance with the proper procedures during the annual turnaround, according to the law firm. In addition, evidence was developed at trial that the "hot work" permit was falsified and not properly implemented in accordance with policies, and that created an explosive atmosphere that led to the horrific event of allowing workers to perform hot work above the tank, according to the law firm.

A three-person investigative team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board went to the scene. It said that according to initial reports, the explosion took place while contractors performed welding on a tank during a facility shut down. The explosion was powerful enough to cause the tank to fly and land in a different area of the plant. Welding is one of several types of "hot work" - or spark-producing operations - that can ignite fires or explosions. Most hot work incidents result in the ignition of combustible materials or the ignition of structures or debris near the hot work.

From CSB Chairperson Vanessa Sutherland:

The CSB has investigated many hot work accidents across the country, including a 2008 explosion that killed three workers at a different PCA plant in Tomahawk, Wisconsin." said . "Hot work incidents are one of the most common causes of worker deaths we see at the CSB, but also one of the most readily preventable.

The CSB continues to be concerned about the frequency of dangerous hot work incidents and has added safe hot work practices to the agency's Drivers of Critical Chemical Safety Change Program, a list of key chemical safety advocacy initiatives.

Following the deadly 2008 explosion at the PCA plant in Wisconsin, the CSB issued a safety bulletin on the hazards of welding and other hot work entitled "Seven Key Lessons to Prevent Worker Deaths during Hot Work In and Around Tanks." The agency also released a safety video called "Dangers of Hot Work," which presents the findings from that bulletin.

The CSB is an independent federal agency whose mission is to drive chemical safety change through independent investigations to protect people and the environment. The agency's board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. CSB investigations look into all aspects of chemical incidents, including physical causes such as equipment failure as well as inadequacies in regulations, industry standards, and safety management systems.

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