Plaintiffs in two suits stemming from the deadly fertilizer plant explosion in West have named a new defendant — one that's likely to have deeper pockets than the plant's parent company, which had only a $1 million policy.
In both suits, the plaintiffs allege that CF Industries supplied more than 200 tons of ammonium nitrate to the fertilizer plant during a two-month period prior to the April 17 blast.
Steven Harrison and Zona Jones represent plaintiff the city of West. Asked how his client came to be the first to name CF Industries as a defendant, Harrison says, "Certain information came to our attention." Harrison is a partner in Waco's Harrison Davis Steakley Morrison.
The naming of CF Industries as a defendant follows disclosures by Adair Grain Inc., the parent company of West Fertilizer Co. which owned the plant in Central Texas, that Adair has only $1 million in liability coverage. [See "Lawyers in West Explosion Strategize After Insurance News," Texas Lawyer, May 13, 2013, page 1.]
Mo Aziz and C. Chad Pinkerton represent a group of 30 plaintiffs, including survivors of three of the first responders who died in the explosion. Those plaintiffs also have named CF Industries as a defendant.
Aziz, a partner in Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend, says he "foresees" no issues with CF Industries' insurance policy coverage, given that the company is publicly traded.
Susan Fisher, a corporation communications manager for the Deerfield, Ill.-based CF Industries, emailed statements from the company regarding the lawsuits that said in part: "CF Industries is sympathetic to those whose lives were affected by this unfortunate incident. CF Industries believes, however, that there is no basis for this suit[s] against CF Industries and its subsidiaries and that the company should not have been added to this lawsuit. The CF Industries' companies will seek dismissal of [these] lawsuit[s] and otherwise defend the company vigorously in court."
Adair spokesman Dan Keeney declines comment. After the company was initially named as a defendant, he had emailed a statement stating in part: "[E]veryone associated with West Fertilizer Co. expresses our deepest sympathies to those who have been hurt and to the families of those who were killed in this tragic accident."
The city of West filed the first claim against CF Industries in a June 21 petition in McLennan County District Court. In the petition, West alleges that CF sold the fertilizer plant ammonium nitrate and 30 tons of the nitrate were what detonated on April 17.
The city alleges in the petition that CF Industries knew the dangers that amount of the chemical posed and "failed to exercise care commensurate with and proportionate to the combined dangers" that such a large supply of ammonium nitrate created at the fertilizer plant.
The petition cites as a cause of action against CF Industries a breach of implied or expressed warranties. The petition also claims negligence as a cause of action against Adair. The petition seeks in excess of $1 million in damages.
Jones, an attorney in Beaumont's Provost Umphrey, couldn't be reached for comment.
In an amended petition filed July 2 in the 74th District Court in McLennan County, the 30 plaintiffs, represented by Aziz and Pinkerton, added CF Industries as a defendant to the negligence suit that they had already filed against Adair. Against CF Industries, those plaintiffs bring two product liability claims in their amended petition: marketing defects, and negligence and gross negligence claims.
Aziz says his clients added CF Industries as a defendant following the city's decision to do so and because he had met CF Industry representatives at the sight of the explosions when it was open for investigation to "interested parties."
Says Aziz, "When we were there, I asked everybody for their names."
Pinkerton says, "I feel very confident that [CF Industries is] the culpable party."
Three McLennan County district judges issued a case management order on June 25, consolidating all discovery and pretrial proceedings for West explosion cases in 170th District Judge Jim Meyers' court. [See "Plaintiff Firms Proceed with Caution in Filing West Lawsuits, Texas Lawyer, April 29, 2013, page 6.]
Harrison says every firm that has filed or is going to file a suit in connection with the blast will submit one lawyer's name to serve on the plaintiff's steering committee foe discovery.