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Almost a decade after a Florida tanker truck explosion ignited a legal battle, a federal judge has ordered an insurer to pay more than $40 million to five people injured in the blast. The recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger in Jacksonville, Fla., follows a number of turns. In 1998, a state court jury awarded $40.1 million in a personal injury suit against the truck’s owner, a pollution disposal firm that by then had gone out of business. When the plaintiffs tried to collect from the defunct firm’s insurance company in state court, the insurer successfully moved the case to the federal bench. “This is a case where an insurance company tried to deny coverage and the courts wouldn’t stand for it,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Bobby Farnell of Jacksonville’s Bedell, Dittmar, DeVault, Pillans & Coxe. Attorneys for the insurer, Atlantic Insurance, argued that its policy with the truck’s owner, Federal Environmental Services, did not include accidents involving pollutants. But Schlesinger found otherwise. John DeVault, who tried the case for Bedell Dittmar, said he believed the key to the federal case was evidence that Atlantic had tried to escape liability by paying Federal Environmental $175,000. DeVault said he expected Atlantic, a subsidiary of Travelers, to appeal. Keith Anderson, a spokesman for Travelers, declined to comment on the case, as did Atlantic’s lawyer, David Atkinson of Atlanta’s Magill & Atkinson. But in a post-trial legal memorandum, Atlantic said there was no basis in law to support the plaintiffs’ case. The drama began at a highway truck stop near Jacksonville in January 1992. The tanker was on its way north to dump a load of hazardous waste, including solvents and other chemicals used to clean airplanes. DeVault said the truck’s load was overheating and the driver tried to vent the heat. But the tanker exploded with such force that pieces were thrown 800 feet through the air. The driver was not hurt. But four people who were in the area were injured, said DeVault. They sued Federal Environmental in state court. A fifth person claimed loss of consortium. Four of the plaintiffs were each awarded $10 million in the 1998 trial in Columbia County 3rd Circuit Court in Lake City, Fla. The loss-of-consortium claimant was awarded $150,000. After the verdict, by which time Federal Environmental was out of business, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the state case contacted Atlantic Insurance and offered a settlement. Atlantic had a million-dollar limit on claims that the plaintiffs agreed to accept, if a settlement could be reached within 30 days, DeVault said. When Atlantic refused the deal, the plaintiffs again sued in state circuit court, charging bad faith on insurance claims, DeVault said. Atlantic sought to move the matter to federal court and Schlesinger got the case. The federal trial — Grace v. Atlantic Insurance Co., No. 99-CV-11-J-20 (M.D. Fla.) — lasted a week. The judge’s award matched the jury award in the state case. DeVault said one defense raised by Atlantic Insurance was what he called the “absolute pollution exclusion.” The exclusion excuses coverage for events caused by pollution. “Our contention was that the exclusion didn’t apply because what happened in this case was a sudden explosion,” DeVault said. “The exclusion was meant to apply to pollution damage over a long period, like seepage from a landfill.”

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