Pretrial settlements in industrial accident cases can work against plaintiffs when it comes time to try a case before a jury, making it easier for the defense to shift blame to a party that has already left the litigation.
That dynamic is what Houston lawyer Vuk Vujasinovic was up against recently as he convinced a Jefferson County jury to hit a Beaumont crane company with a $44 million verdict in a wrongful death case.
Vujasinovic represents the family of Miguel Barron, a contractor who was killed at the Beaumont ExxonMobil refinery in 2016 while performing turnaround maintenance at the plant. According to the petition, ExxonMobil hired B&G Crane to perform the crane work and AltairStrickland Inc., who employed Barron, to perform the rigging work.
B&G Crane was lifting a 12-ton heat exchanger from the refinery approximately five floors above ground level when it made contact with a 1,000 pound water pipe, causing it to fall on Barron and crush him to death.
Barron’s survivors initially sued ExxonMobil, AltairStrickland and B&G Crane but settled confidentially with ExxonMobil and AltairStrickland prior to trial. B&G Crane was the lone defendant in the case after Barron’s survivors rejected a $500,000 settlement offer from the company.
“The jury doesn’t know that [the other defendants] settled. All they know is they are supposed to consider their negligence, if any,” Vujasinovic said. “But obviously there are no lawyers down there representing the settling parties, so we have to stick up for them if we can.’’
During the trial, defense attorneys argued to the jury that B&G had no responsibility for the accident and that the blame should be split evenly between ExxonMobil and AltairStrickland.
But Vujasinovic argued that B&G Crane had violated the safety plan it presented to ExxonMobil, in which it promised to remove hazards from the path of the crane’s lift, among other things.
“If you look at the actual job paperwork, the safety analysis that was out there before there was a lawsuit put many safety obligations on that crane company,” Vujasinovic said. “The crane company focused more on the deposition taken in the case from people from all three companies.”
In their verdict, the jury agreed with Vujasinovic’s arguments and found that B&G Crane, ExxonMobil and AltairStrickland were all negligent. They assigned 45 percent responsibility to B&G Crane, 45 percent responsibility to ExxonMobil, and 10 percent to AltairStrickland.
Included in the jury’s $44 million damage award was $27.5 million for loss of companionship and mental anguish to five members of his family, including his three daughters and two brothers—siblings who were working alongside of Barron as contractors at the accident site and watched him die.
While Barron’s brothers testified about the accident, his three daughters were not in the courtroom during testimony—one of whom had attempted suicide because of her father’s death, said Byron Alfred, an attorney who assisted Vujasinovic in representing the family at trial. A grief counselor who had worked with the daughters explained to the jury how losing their father impacted all three of the school-age girls, Alfred said.
“One of the misconceptions in these types of cases, when you have a single death, is that the jury will only value the life of the decedent. But we made this about the entire family,’’ said Alfred, who handled the damages portion of their case. “That’s what really drove this, having the family testify about what it meant for them to lose Mr. Miguel Barron.’’
Kent M. Adams, a partner in the Houston office of Wilson Elser who represented B&G Crane at trial, did not return a call for comment.