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Legal options will vary for workers injured in Formosa fire

By Jessica Priest
May 3, 2013 at 12:03 a.m.
Updated May 4, 2013 at 12:04 a.m.


The plaintiffs in the 2006 civil lawsuit were John Ring, Diane Patrick, Raul Saenz Sr., Ramona Saenz, Raul Saenz Jr., Elvira Herrera individually and as next friend of Angel Saenz, Chris Shannon, Julia Shannon, Nathan Shannon, Ann Shannon, Ernest Belmarez, Elisha Aguilar, William Phillips, Norma Mayorga, Joseph Sanchez, Steven Garcia, Richard L. Morales, Richard Sisk, Elias Villareal, Eddie Guajardo and Rafela Guajardo.

Since the lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1, 2006, some of the parties have settled or a jury cleared Formosa of blame.

Workers burned in a flash fire at Formosa Plastics plant Thursday may take months to heal, but the wheels of justice are already turning.

At least two families affected have sought legal advice, said Chuck Cole, a Victoria personal injury attorney.

However, how much money they can lay claim to will depend on avariety of factors, such as what caused the fire and who they work for, he said.

Formosa voluntarily subscribes to the Workers Compensation Act, according to the Texas Department of Insurances' database.

The plant has a policy with Indemnity Insurance Company of North America.

Workers compensation pays medical and income benefits to employees injured on the job.

It also sometimes protects employers from lawsuits brought on by injured workers.

Workers compensation can be expensive, especially if a company has a lot of accidents.

"It's based off your safety rating," Cole said. "That's why you see companies like Formosa and Invista really anxious to have injury-free days."

At least five of the 14 injured work for a Formosa subcontractor called Palacios Marine & Industrial.

It was unclear Friday whether Palacios Marine & Industrial subscribes to the Workers Compensation Act as well. If the contractor has the coverage, their benefits could provide Formosa an additional shield against legal action, Cole said.

Generally though, contractors have more legal rights than employees. And what can be obtained via workers compensation is severely limited, said John Griffin, a Victoria civil attorney.

Griffin is one of a handful of attorneys that the Calhoun County District Clerk's Office shows is representing at least 20 people who in December 2006 sued Formosa Plastics Corp., a contractor named Fernando Rivero and Rivero's employer, HP Services, after an explosion in the same plant Oct. 6, 2005.

The explosion happened after the trailer Rivero was driving caught on a protruding valve that released flammable gas. The fire burned for five days.

They alleged the defendants were negligent because they failed to provide physically marked, specific travel routes throughout the plant, failed to institute and enforce an adequate safety program and failed to come up with a way to isolate hazardous materials in case of releases, among other things, according to the original petition.

Overall, Griffin stressed Thursday's fire is a different event, with different circumstances.

"Our goal, as anyone's goal should be, is to find out the truth," he said. "What caused this tragedy? What measures could have prevented it?"

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