Jentz v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 767 F.3d 688 (7th Cir. 2014)

Explosions in grain storage bins is a constant risk. These can be caused by the combustible dust and carbon monoxide, as well as heat and decay of the grain. In March 2010, ConAgra discovered a burning smell in one of their wheat pellet bins. They contacted West Side Salvage, who reports to have an expertise in handling “hot bins,” to work on the bin and salvage the grain. Contract negotiations delayed work on the project until April 20, 2010. John Jentz and Robert Schmidt of A & J Bin Cleaning were hired to do some of the work, with Justin Becker of West Side also joining in.

ConAgra wanted to keep as much of the grain as possible, salvaging grain pellets from the top. However, this introduced oxygen to the composting wheat at the bottom of the bin. On Augst 27, 2010, West Side decided to take some grain through side tunnels. They detected smoke coming from inside the bin, sprayed water on the pellets, and tried to find the source of the smoke. West Side told ConAgra to call the fire department, and instructed the workers to remove tools from the tunnel which might make access for the firefighters more difficult. While they were removing the tools, an explosion occurred, injuring the workers.

After a 17-day jury trial, the workers were awarded $180 million in compensatory and punitive damages against ConAgra and West Side. ConAgra and West Side challenged the decision, calling the award excessive. ConAgra also sought damages against West Side for the costs of repairing the facility.

Employees of independent contractors, such as Becker and Jentz, usually cannot obtain damages from the owner of a property where they are working. The plaintiffs argued that the workplace was unsafe; however, ConAgra contends that the workers knew the area was unsafe, which is why they had been hired to remedied the “hot bins” On appeal, the court found that ConAgra was not liable for the workers’ injuries. The court also reversed the award of punitive damages against West Side.

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