Savannah Sugar Refinery Disaster
Legal Consequences & Remedies


By: Guerry R. Thornton, Jr., Member, Georgia Bar (Atlanta)

Author: Mass Tort Litigation, National Law Journal (1/9/89);Counsel in numerous mass tort cases, including Dalkon Shield,
Peachtree 25th Fire Disaster, Golden Dolphin Explosion, andDupont Plaza Hotel Fire; author worked on the Thiokol case as
a clerk to the U. S. District Court, Savannah Division.

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     I. BACKGROUND:

     The modern industrial complex has spawned a field of law known as “mass tort litigation”, or multiple claims related to one incident. The rapid growth of work-place safety began with asbestos cases against Johns-Manville. This legacy has had a profound impact on employee rights.

     A stark reminder of industrial hazards is evident in the Imperial Sugar Refinery explosion near Savannah. This horrific disaster is not only a tragedy for those involved, but will have enormous legal and safety consequences for years to come. This is the second mass disaster in this Georgia coastal region. In 1971, a chemical explosion at the Thiokol plant in Woodbine killed 34 workers and injured 150. The Thiokol disaster resulted in a wave of litigation, ending in new laws favoring worker safety and millions in compensation. Likewise, the Savannah explosion will result in years of litigation, substantial compensation for injuries and death, and improvements in employee safety standards.

     Investigators are only speculating as to the cause. What is known is this: the epicenter of the explosion may be a silo; it has long been known that sugar dust can ignite a fire from a variety of sources, from static electricity and cigarettes to sparks from metal equipment. Sugar dust has been suspected of starting other fatal explosions. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has a record of 281 dust explosions from 1980 to 2005, involving ll9 deaths and 7l8 injuries. Of these, 24% were in the food industry, with two at sugar plants. Plants that process sugar have been on notice of ultra hazardous conditions and liability due to workplace deficiencies. In 2007, OSHA classified sugar refineries as hazardous work sites.

     II. THE LEGAL RESPONSE:

     The U. S. legal system has constructed laws which will deal with the multiple claims that will arise from the Savannah Sugar Refinery disaster. The laws that will control the outcome range from workers’ compensation and occupational standards to premises liability and product safety. The venues may span the spectrum of our justice system, from local employee compensation boards to full scale litigation in state and federal courts. Certain issues may set new law at the appellate level, like rulings in the Thiokol case.

     After a respectful period of mourning and recovery, many families will need to address the severe impact they are forced to endure related to disabling injuries and death. Lost wages, diminished value of life, pain, suffering and lost loved ones may force many victims to seek redress. Our system is well-equipped to deal with large disasters, but the process is complicated and it can take years before justice prevails. See, Mass Torts, Rand Corp. (1983).

     First, claimants may seek lost wages, medical expenses and compensation from disability and death under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act. This involves administrative claims before the compensation board. This right is limited to classified injuries and award amounts. Payments under this act are made regardless of fault by an employer.

     Actions may be brought against other entities that share in the liability, such as inspectors, product makers and independent contractors. The Dupont Plaza fire in Puerto Rico resulted in claims against dozens of parties, including flammable products, officers and the designers of the hotel. Parties may file in state or federal court if they comply with jurisdictional rules. The legal strategy must be crafted from on a complex analysis of laws and facts which best serve the rights of the plaintiffs. The issues contested relate to worker safety, strict liability, negligence, warranty, corporate and successor duties, breach of contract and willful misconduct.

     Claims must be brought within the time period prescribed by controlling law. This depends on the type claim and the law which applies. All victims who intend to pursue a claim should decide within the first few months as to the claims to be filed and the timetable for instituting an action.

     Victims of the sugar refinery explosion will face challenges and opportunities as the court system responds. Our judiciary can handle a large number of claims and fashion resolution options, ranging from medical benefits to settlement plans, or a full jury trial. As the dust settles, the courts will render decisions that protect the rights of all litigants.

     [Notice: The statements herein are general in nature; it is not intended to provide advice in the context of any attorney-client relationship; any victim should seek qualified advice from a member of the legal profession; this article should not be relied upon for legal advice]

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For More Information Contact:

Guerry R. Thornton, Jr., Attorney at Law, Tel: 404 933 0298 Fax: 404 237 4148

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