Aug. 2006 – Jury awards $9.6 million to victims of tank explosion

WCF Courier. Staff Writer. August 11, 2006.

Jury awards $9.6 million to victims of tank explosion

CLINTON (AP) — Victims of a deadly tank explosion three years ago in eastern Iowa were awarded about $9.6 million on Thursday.

Bob Ryan, 68, and Nathan Nissen, 27, were working at River Valley Cooperative in Calamus in April 2003 when an anhydrous ammonia tank exploded, killing Ryan and leaving Nissen with serious chemical burns.

After a trial that lasted 2.5 weeks, the Clinton County jury awarded about $3.8 million to Ryan’s estate and about $5.8 million to Nissen, who has returned to work at River Valley.

Most of the money will come from Trinity Industries, which manufactured the tank.

The Nissens and Ryans blamed Trinity and other companies for failing to warn users about periodic inspections and testing of anhydrous ammonia tanks, or the dangers of the chemical.

Don Beattie, the attorney representing the Nissen and Ryan families, claimed the tank was not properly inspected when it was manufactured in 1976.

“I think the jury has clearly sent a message to the anhydrous ammonia industry that they better get these tanks off the road and make sure they’re safe,” Beattie said.

“Safety won out.”

He said his clients hope the case will prompt companies to ensure tanks are always inspected internally. “They truly don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” he said.

Nissen referred questions to Beattie. Ryan’s widow Charlene declined comment.

In April 2003, both River Valley employees had just finished filling an anhydrous ammonia nurse tank when it ruptured, spilling 1,500 gallons of the chemical used by farmers as fertilizer.

After the explosion, Ryan dragged Nissen to an emergency water tank and held him underwater, then insisted his co-worker be airlifted first from the accident site. Ryan died of his injuries 13 days later and posthumously received the Lifesaving Award of Valor from Gov. Tom Vilsack in July 2003.

Nissen spent 86 days in the hospital.

The jury assigned 40 percent of the blame each to Agriliance and CF Industries. About 15 percent of the blame went to Cenex and 5 percent to Heritage Trails.

Agriliance, CF Industries and Cenex settled with the Ryan and Nissen families before the trial started for $2.25 million, which is included in the award from the jury.

All four companies sought reimbursement from Trinity Industries, claiming a faulty weld caused the tank to rupture. According to the verdict, Trinity must reimburse Heritage Trails for 95 percent of the money the company must pay the plaintiffs, as well as 80 percent to CF Industries and Agriliance, and 90 percent to Cenex.

Dave Hacker, who assisted in representing Heritage Trails, said he could not comment until he can discuss the verdict with his client. Trinity Industries attorney Michael Coyle could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday night.