The tragedy of the explosion at West Fertilizer Co. has left dozens of families reeling in West, Texas. The emotional effects of the incident are tangible, and the outpouring of support has been significant. But what about the long-term effects of the incident, when the families are left without their breadwinners or with extensive medical bills? While it may seem clinical to discuss the legal ramifications of the explosion, the fact of the matter is these families will continue to feel this immense strain without the full backing of the law.
Let's examine the types of claims each class of victim has, from the first responders (either volunteer or full-time), to plant workers, to property owners near the plant. It's been reported that many of the first responders to the plant were volunteers. If this is true, there is a potential wrongful death or personal injury claim against city or state entities, through what is known as the Texas Tort Claims Act. Prior to 1969, (specific to this incident) volunteer first responders would have been barred from any recovery against a negligent city or state act, through governmental sovereign immunity. With this legislation, it is at least possible, though quite difficult, to be compensated from a city or the state of Texas, following an injury or death. On the other hand, it is possible the city of West, or other surrounding cities have purchased workers' compensation coverage for their volunteers. This would enable a no-fault claim within workers' comp, which like the Texas Tort Claims Act, has damages caps depending on the type of claim (either personal injury or wrongful death). Damages caps, as you may know, have the potential to leave victims owing money if their medical bills or expenses exceed the cap. The last potential claim for first responders is a negligence-based personal injury or wrongful death claim against the fertilizer plant. While it is true that first responders do assume some risk, they do not assume the risk of negligence. As defined within the context of this accident, if the plant failed to make their premises safe, failed to warn responders of a known dangerous condition, or failed to properly secure the explosive material, a negligence claim could be possible. This, of course, requires detailed and intricate investigation from a team trained in accident reconstruction.
The second class of victim is, most certainly, the surrounding victims of the plant. They most definitely have personal injury claims, or their families have wrongful death claims. This, like the negligence claims the volunteer first responders have, requires an investigation into the safety processes of the plant. It was reported that in 2006 the fertilizer plant was fined by the EPA for problems associated with risk management. Obviously this does not factually equate to any negligence claims currently, but it does implicate the safety procedures in place. Further, it was reported the air surrounding the facility may be toxic, from the lingering ammonium nitrate. Certainly if injuries were sustained from the fumes, this adds to the victims' prospective relief and indeed, if the injuries are expansive enough, this may mean a mass tort claim. Because of our background helping the victims of chemical and work-related incidents, I question what procedures were in place to secure the escape of these noxious fumes. This is yet another problem for the facility.
Thirdly, it should be apparent that plant workers and their families have a claim against the fertilizer factory. From a cursory look at the structures in place at the plant, it appears the company that owns the facility does not have workers' compensation. While this means that compensation for work accidents requires victims to demonstrate negligence on the part of their employer, it (thankfully) means that prospective compensation could be higher than the damages caps workers' compensation employs. This type of work injury claim, again, is based on negligence. As I've mentioned earlier, a negligence claim can only be successful if demonstrated by strenuous investigation, which must address the same types of questions I framed earlier within the context of first responders. Employers must make an employee's working environment reasonably safe, they must warn employees of known dangers, and they must have systems in place to adequately remedy any unexpected dangers that arise.
Lastly, surrounding home or property owners likely have a property claim against the plant for any property damage sustained. This is not the type of work our firm conducts, but is probably fairly easily accomplished through a claim filed with the owners' insurance agencies.
The tragedy of the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas has left dozens of families without a major source of their financial support, possibly displaced, and faced with the mounting expenses of medical bills or other costs.
While some may view my discussion of the legal ramifications of those affected by this incident as callous or removed, the victims and their families need all the help they can get, and moving forward, they are going to need financial support as well. If you've been affected by the tragedy in West, Texas, let us help you.