July 2006 – Ammonia leak trial opens

Clinton Herald. Charlene Bielema. July 26, 2006.

Ammonia leak trial opens

CLINTON — On the morning April 15, 2003, Nathan Nissen and Robert Ryan were busy at work filling nurse tanks at the River Valley Co-op near Calamus.

By that evening, both were hospitalized at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, victims of an anhydrous ammonia spill that gave them severe freeze burns inside and out.

Thirteen days later, Ryan died of his injuries; Nissen lay in a hospital bed, battling second and third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body and severe burns to his mouth, throat and lungs.

Today he has an uncertain future as he fights several aftereffects, including lung infections, sensitive skin that will never be the same and the possibility of vision loss as a result of the accident.

On Tuesday, a Clinton County jury began to hear opening arguments in a civil lawsuit trial in which Nissen, his wife Amy, the estate of Robert Ryan and his wife, Charlene, seek compensation from Heritage Trails of Anamosa, the company that the plaintiffs’ attorneys said was paid to provide safety training at the co-op.

Also taking part in the lawsuit are companies that manufactured or supplied the anhydrous ammonia and once had been named as defendants.

Those companies, CFI and Agriliance, settled with the plaintiffs and now are third-party plaintiffs as they seek compensation from the tank maker, Trinity Industries.

Attorneys for the parties spent much of Tuesday explaining each company’s role in the case and where they feel blame belongs.

Donald Beattie, a Des Moines attorney representing the Nissens and Ryans, said the tank, manufactured in 1976, was defective; Heritage Trails is at fault, Beattie said, because it failed to show the co-op employees how to properly inspect aging tanks. He said that would mean going beyond visual testing and doing X-rays, ultrasounds or other testing procedures to test inside the tank.

But Stephen Holtman, attorney for Heritage Trails, said Heritage is not a manufacturer and has nothing to do with anhydrous ammonia or repairing tanks. He said in judging whether his client was guilty of failing to warn co-op workers of the risk, it is important to look at the state of the industry prior to April 2003.

He said at that time visual inspections were the norm and the tanks at the co-op had been visually inspected by workers, Heritage Trails and the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

“As of April 2003, visual inspection was customary within the industry,” he said. “As of April 2003, Heritage had no reason to believe internal inspections was necessary.”

Holtman said warnings should have come from the manufacturer and that up until a few days ago, the suppliers were his co-defendants. Holtman said the River Valley supervisor did not expect Heritage to warn him of something Heritage had no knowledge of happening.

The suppliers now listed as two of the third-party plaintiffs told the jury their companies feel partially responsible for the tragedy and felt they should enter into reasonable settlement with the plaintiffs. CFI and Agriliance then decided to proceed as plaintiffs against Trinity for compensation and also said the new plaintiffs would share any reward with the Ryan estate, Charlene Ryan and the Nissens.

John Sheran, an attorney representing CF Industries, said he wants to prove the tank was defective in many different ways and that it should not have made it onto the market.

“That tank was defective the day it was manufactured,” he said.

R. Jeffery Lewis, an attorney from Des Moines representing Agriliance, agreed that a manufacturing defect caused the failure and said the bottom of the tank split along the seam where the cylinder was welded shut. Agriliance, CF Industries and Cenex Harvest States Cooperatives will pay the families $2.25 million, company representatives announced Tuesday in court. Agriliance has paid the plaintiffs $1,025,000 already but that amount won’t come close to paying what Nissen will need, Lewis said.

He said Agriliance is looking to Trinity for reimbursement.

“Trinity needs to step up to the plate here,” Lewis said.

But Michael Coyle, Trinity’s attorney, said the welding wasn’t defective and there is a possibility something other than anhydrous may have been used in the tank, causing it to corrode. He also suggested the tank may have been damaged. He also said the flip-flopping of the previous defendants into the plaintiff role points to “some kind of scheme.”

Testimony is to continue today and the trial is expected to last into next week.