$3,600,000 :: Leavitt v. Ultramar

SETTLEMENT : Explosion at oil storage facility

In late October of 1996, the construction and maintenance company Matrix Services Inc. was hired by Ultramar Corporation to rebuild one of the hydrocarbon storage tanks at Ultramar’s Wilmington storage facility. The tank was labeled as Tank 4 and was reportedly emptied and cleaned. Additionally, Team Safety Corporation was hired to provide “Fire Watch” services and Jacobs Engineering/J.E. Merit hired to provide engineering services.

On October, 24, 1996, a 44-year-old foreman for Matrix Services, Inc. was standing atop Tank 2, a tank adjacent to the one slated for a rebuild, and was preparing to attach a metal catwalk to extend 20’ to Tank 4. The catwalk that had previously connected the two tanks had been cut away with a torch the month before. This had left two 18” metal stubs protruding from the insulated roof of Tank 2; the Matrix foreman used those stubs to make four tack welds to connect the new catwalk.

After making the welds, the foreman waited atop Tank 2 for his coworkers to bring scrap channel iron for him. Tank 2 was at the time filled with over 6,200 barrels of kerosene-type product and, as the plaintiff would later argue, showed significant signs of corrosion. The welding had brought the temperature too high and within five minutes of the foreman’s repair, Tank 2 exploded. The foreman was hurled 45 feet and sent sprawling to the ground.

The injuries from this fall were significant. He fractured three vertebrae, crushed his L3 vertebrae, fractured his pelvis in three places, crushed bones between his elbow and wrist, broke his tibia and fibula so severe that the bones came through his skin, suffered severe lacerations his face, and sustained other significant injuries which necessitated a 3-month hospital stay. The foreman underwent 13 surgeries and was left with 100% disability due to limited motion of both forearms along with inhibited foot movement and balance.

While workers’ compensation benefits would pay for his medical benefits, the foreman knew more was at issue here. He hired attorneys Robert Bruce Arnold, Lawrence R. Booth, and Donald Joseph Beck of Booth & Koskoff to go after Ultramar, Team Safety, and Jacobs/J.E. Merit for their roles in the accident.

The plaintiff claimed that Ultramar never made a timely internal inspection of Tank 2 for corrosion and that post-accident inspections showed significant signs of corrosion. In discovery, it was found that workmen had made complaints of odors but that Ultramar had never sufficiently followed up as their monitors used to detect dangerous gases were not properly maintained nor calibrated. The plaintiff also maintained that Ultramar management knew that the previous catwalk had been removed with a torch and should have anticipated that a new catwalk would likewise be installed via welding. If nothing else, that issue should have been addressed during a ‘job walk’ where work methods and procedures would have been discussed. Ultramar management failed to do this ‘job walk’ with the foreman. Additionally, the kerosene-type product stored in Tank 2 was kept at too high a temperature, which contributed to its high explosivity.

Team Safety was listed in the negligence lawsuit for their failure to exercise their authority to immediately stop work when they knew proper permitting procedures were not being followed. Jacobs/J.E. Merit likewise failed in their duty to maintain control over safety aspects involved in the job. Both these companies would argue that such was not their responsibility in the scope of this work site.

Ultramar likewise argued that the accident was purely the fault of either the foreman himself or his employer saying that there should never have been any welding on a ‘live tank’ and that catwalk should have either been bolted or welded on the ground.

In the end, an out-of-court settlement of $8,050,000 total cash and guaranteed structure payout was made on behalf of the injured foreman with a present value of $3,600,000.

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