An Illinois jury has returned a verdict of nearly $17 million in a lawsuit involving the deaths of two teenagers and the traumatic entrapment of a third worker in a grain bin in 2010. It was proved that the teenagers Wyatt Whitebread, Alex Pacas and 20-year-old Will Piper were sent into an Illinois grain bin to unclog corn. They had not been trained and safety gear had not been provided, in violation of federal regulations. Howard Berkes, in a NPR newscast, described what happened to the workers:
The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to walk down the grain, or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin. The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface. Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.
NPR and the Center for Public Integrity have documented hundreds of similar cases in which workers drowned in grain. Unfortunately, expanding federal regulation of such facilities has drawn “stiff resistance.” In such cases, according to Berkes, criminal charges are rare. The jury in Carroll County, Ill., said the deaths of Whitebread and Pacas, and the six-hour entrapment of Piper, deserved damage awards of nearly $17 million. The verdict against Consolidated Grain and Barge follows a settlement last year with a group of farmers also managing the bin. Suffocation from engulfment is a leading cause of death in grain bins. The number of deaths more than doubled between 2006 and 2010, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).
The families of the two teens who died were each awarded $8 million. The other youngster, Piper, who survived, was awarded $875,000. The Chicago Tribune says the jury’s award is a record for Carroll County. Kevin P. Darkin, a lawyer with the Clifford law offices in Chicago, represented the Plaintiffs in this lawsuit. He did a very good job in the case. According to Jonathan Sandoz, general counsel for Consolidated Grain and Barge Company, an appeal will be taken.
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