As West residents walk the road of sorrow, grief and recovery, their journey through the justice system could prove as challenging as the trials of lawsuits generated by the April 17 explosion reach the courtroom.
The first of three scheduled trials is set for Jan. 26, 2015, in 170th State District Judge Jim Meyer’s court. The second is scheduled for April 27 that year, and the third later in July.
In the meantime, the large group of attorneys on both sides will be poring over documents that are being exchanged in the ongoing discovery process.
About 200 plaintiffs, including the city of West, West Rest Haven nursing home, West Terrace Apartments and other businesses have filed lawsuits in the wake of the explosion.
Meyer has divided the plaintiffs into three distinct groups: those who lost loved ones, those injured in the blast and those with property damage.
Waco attorney Steve Harrison represents a number of the plaintiffs, including some who lost loved ones in the explosion. He declined for any of his clients to be interviewed for this story.
“All of these folks are having a hard go at this. It is hard enough dealing with your grief and your loss and trying to put your life back together when you are doing it privately,” Harrison said. “When you are having to relive it all in such a public event, as this was, it is just especially hard. There will be a time where everybody will tell their story.”
The first lawsuit was filed two days after the blast that killed 15 people, injured 200, damaged schools, homes and businesses and reduced to rubble dozens of dwellings, a nursing home and an apartment complex, mostly on the town’s north side.
The first suits named Adair Grain, doing business as West Fertilizer Co., as the sole defendant. But in a suit filed June 21, the city of West became the first to also name Deerfield, Ill.-based CF Industries as a defendant.
After that, a number of plaintiffs, including insurance carriers filing subrogation claims, intervened in that lawsuit or amended their pleadings to include CFI and a number of its subsidiaries as defendants.
CF Industries manufactures agricultural-grade ammonium nitrate at its plant in Yazoo City, Miss., which ended up at West Fertilizer, the suits allege. It was an estimated 30 tons of ammonium nitrate that detonated after West Fertilizer caught fire sometime about 7:30 p.m. April 17.
Recently, International Chemical Co., doing business as Inter-Chem, El Dorado Chemical Co. and Thermaclime were added as additional defendants, alleging they also sold fertilizer to the business in West.
Harrison said only one preliminary deposition has been taken so far involving how CFI electronically stores its information. Depositions will be starting in about two weeks, including those of Adair, Inter-Chem and El Dorado employees.
Waco attorney Hayes Fuller, who represents Adair Grain, said he advised company owners Donald and Wanda Adair to decline interview requests from the Tribune-Herald because of the pending litigation.
“Everyone is aware how much this event impacted the West community,” Fuller said. “Adair Grain and the Adair family were and remain very much a part of this community. They, like many of their friends and neighbors, have suffered great loss from which, in all likelihood, they will never fully recover.
“They continue to grieve for those who were injured, those who perished and those who lost homes and possessions. They are grateful and wish to thank all those who have contributed so much to helping the people of West rebuild their lives following this terrible tragedy,” he said.
In the ensuing investigation, officials found West Fertilizer had no sprinkler or fire-suppression system and the Adairs carried only $1 million in liability insurance on the property. Officials say the explosion caused an estimated $200 million in damage to homes, schools, businesses and city property.
Attorneys and spokespeople for the other defendants either declined comment or did not return phone calls.
So far in the discovery process, the CFI defendants have produced about 25,000 documents and tell plaintiffs’ attorneys that they still have 450,000 documents that they haven’t turned over.
The El Dorado defendants have not produced any documents yet, Harrison said.
“There could be millions of documents that need to be examined before we go to trial,” Harrison said.
The plaintiffs are alleging that the manufacturers of the nitrogen-based fertilizer failed in their duty to make sure the product was properly handled and stored.
They also claim the companies produced and sold the fertilizer without adequate warnings about its danger and without instructions about its safe handling and storage.
The lawsuits also allege the product itself is unreasonably dangerous because of its design when there are safer alternative fertilizers.
The plaintiffs claim Adair Grain was negligent in the manner in which it stored and maintained the fertilizer.
The suits claim International Chemical Co. bought two separate 100-ton shipments of ammonium nitrate manufactured by CF Industries in March and April 2013 and shipped it to West Fertilizer Co.
An estimated 60 tons of agricultural-grade ammonium nitrate from the March shipment was in the building, and officials think about 30 tons, or half of it, exploded.
Another 100 tons from the April shipment was sitting in a rail car on the north side of the plant at the time of the explosion and did not detonate.