Aug. 2006 – Anhydrous ammonia case goes to jury

QC Times. Steven Martens. August 10, 2006.

Anhydrous ammonia case goes to jury

CLINTON, Iowa — A Clinton County jury began Wednesday afternoon the task of arriving at a verdict in a civil case that involved 2 1/2 weeks of testimony, 54 separate jury instructions, five attorneys and one company that is both a plaintiff and a defendant.

Deliberations began just after 2 p.m. in a case that stems from a 2003 anhydrous ammonia spill that claimed the life of River Valley Cooperative employee Bob Ryan and seriously injured his co-worker, Nathan Nissen.

The Ryan and Nissen families filed suit against five companies. One was dismissed from the suit, and three companies, Cenex, Agriliance and CF Industries, settled their claims with the families for $2.25 million shortly before the trial began. The three companies then joined Heritage Trails, the only remaining original defendant, in becoming third-party plaintiffs, seeking compensation from Trinity Industries, the company that manufactured the anhydrous ammonia tank.

Jurors had been told the trial would last about a week-and-a-half. One juror was dismissed before closing arguments resumed Wednesday morning because she was scheduled to leave for vacation today and already had delayed her vacation a week for the trial. She was replaced by an alternate.

Don Beattie, the attorney for the Ryan and Nissen families, has argued that Heritage Trails, the company hired by River Valley to provide safety training and expertise, was negligent by not advising River Valley to conduct internal testing on its anhydrous ammonia nurse tanks. Attorneys for the third-party plaintiffs have argued that a defective weld caused the tank to rupture.

During his closing argument Tuesday, Beattie said the agriculture industry is watching the case closely, and he urged the jury to send a message about the need for improved tank safety.

“We are gathered here to bring justice to Bob Ryan and Nathan Nissen and to send a message from this courtroom that these tanks need to be inspected,” he added.

Beattie’s statement included another viewing of graphic photos taken at a hospital that show the injuries suffered by Ryan and Nissen. Nissen, who testified during the trial that he had never looked at the photos, averted his eyes as they were shown to the jury.

Beattie asked the jury to award his clients a total of about $12 million to cover past and future medical expenses, loss of income and pain and suffering. That $12 million would include the $2.25 million settlement already reached.

Stephen Holtman, the attorney for Heritage Trails, told jurors they could judge the

company only on what the industry standard was in 2003, when internal testing was not included.

Holtman also told jurors that Trinity Industries was at fault, even though Iowa law prevented the Ryan and Nissen families from suing that company because the accident took place more than 15 years after the tank originally was sold.

“I submit to you that if the plaintiffs in this case were able to sue Trinity, Heritage Trails would not even be a defendant in this case,” Holtman said, “because we all know who’s at fault here.”

John Sheran, the attorney for CF Industries, told jurors his client, as well as Cenex and Agriliance, has taken its share of responsibility for the accident and that the jury would have to force Trinity to accept its share.

“You need to tell them that they were wrong,” he said. “You need to tell them they need to take a look at this and drop this façade of infallibility.”

Trinity attorney Michael Coyle said the tank was not defective and placed the blame back on the companies that settled with the plaintiffs, accusing those firms of knowing more about tank safety than they told their customers.

“There’s a reason why (those companies) settled,” he said. “They should have settled, but it’s not Trinity’s fault.”