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In an end-run around workers’ compensation limitations, three skilled tradesmen who suffered massive burns in a workplace explosion have won a $122.59 million verdict from the parent of their employer, on allegations of negligent undertaking. The plaintiffs, Daniel Torres, William Bourland and David Natividad, were working at the Coastal Refining and Marketing refinery in Corpus Christi, Tex., in May 1999, when naphtha released from a corroded pressure vessel exploded, said their attorney, Craig M. Sico of Corpus Christi’s Harris & Watts. All three suffered burns over more than 70 percent of their bodies, he said. They were unable to sue their employer, Coastal Refining, directly because of workers’ compensation laws, although all three have been drawing workers’ compensation benefits since the accident, said Sico. THE INSPECTOR ISSUE Instead, the plaintiffs sued The Coastal Corp., charging that the holding company for Coastal Refining was responsible under the theory of negligent undertaking because “the parent had budgetary control over safety and maintenance,” he added. Torres v. The Coastal Corp., 99-2786 (Dist. Ct., Nueces Co., Texas). The explosion occurred because the side walls of the vessel containing the naphtha had corroded “beyond minimum thickness,” said Sico. An inspection should have detected the flaw, he alleged, but “this refinery had a significantly lower number of inspectors” than other refineries. Coastal denied any responsibility, said defense attorney Darrell L. Barger of Corpus Christi’s Barger, Hermansen, McKibben & Villarreal. “They were employees of a Coastal subsidiary … covered by workers’ compensation.” He added that the “parent company had nothing to do with the budget.” The court denied Coastal’s motion for a directed verdict and on Sept. 5, the Corpus Christi jury awarded $48.87 million to Torres, $41.24 million to Bourland and $32.48 million to Natividad. “We expected to have a hard time with the jury,” said Barger. Coastal will appeal.

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