Appeals court upholds damages awarded in Iberia Parish chemical plant explosion

By Sandra Lane | Jul 16, 2018

LAKE CHARLES – Louisiana's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal recently upheld a ruling by the 16th Judicial District Court in Iberia Parish concerning damages related to a chemical fire in Iberia Parish on June 14, 2011. 

In the appeals court decision earlier this month, Judge Marc T. Amy declared that “... We find support for the trial court’s awards for general damages to each of the bellwether plaintiffs as well as for its award of special damages to a number of plaintiffs.”

This lawsuit was filed by Robert J. Broussard and other residents who claimed they suffered serious health effects from the explosion at the Multi-Chem plant in New Iberia. According to local authorities, residents within a five-mile radius of the plant were ordered to evacuate, but later the order was issued to only those living in a one-mile radius.

Although the appeals court upheld most of the awards Iberia Parish court, it reversed a few of the awards concerning mental anguish. “We further maintain the trial court’s award for mental anguish resulting from fear of developing cancer made to seven of the bellwether plaintiffs, but reverse the five awards for which there was no evidentiary basis,” Amy said.

As stated in the opinion, Multi-Chem confirmed that the facility housed 700,060 gallons of chemicals at the time of the fire and that the close proximity of its storage vessels contributed to multiple explosions.  Local residents described the scene, explaining that they witnessed debris, including drums and containers, flying into the air due to the explosions. Depending on the distance from the explosion, residents reported various physical reactions including difficulty in breathing, vomiting, burning eyes, severe headaches, nose bleeds. 

There were some pre-trial proceedings, the opinion said, where Multi-Chem’s liability for resulting damages were established. After that, there was a multi-day bench trial.

Amy said that at trial, “the parties presented expert testimony on whether the bellwether plaintiffs were exposed to hazardous materials as a result of the Multi-Chem fire and, as a result of that exposure, whether they sustained compensable damages.”

Expert witnesses said that air sampling data revealed that particulate matter existed for days following the fire and that those levels exceeded regulatory standards. Witnesses also explained that a chemical soup of particulates resulted and that some of the associated chemicals are potential carcinogens.

As outlined in the opinion, trial court awards for damages were not large. Payment for medical expenses ranged from $500 to $4,000. General damages were awarded from $5,000 to $17,000. Awards for mental anguish (fear of developing cancer) amounts were awarded from $5,000 to $7,000. 

The appeal court upheld most of the rulings of the trial court and only reversed a few of the trial court’s awards for mental anguish concerning fear of cancer for a few of the victims. The awards were based on the distance each person lived from the explosion and whether the appeal court felt that there was enough evidence to support those awards.

“For the foregoing reasons, and except as reflected in the decrees of the companion matters in these consolidated appeals, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed. Costs of this proceeding are assessed to the defendants-appellants," Amy said.

Appeals Judges Van H. Kyza, and Candyce G. Perret concurred.

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