ATLANTA (CN) — Chemical gas mega-company Messer Co. was hit this week by four wrongful-death lawsuits filed by the families of workers who died in a massive liquid nitrogen leak at a Georgia poultry processing plant last month.
The complaints all allege that the Messer Group, the world’s largest privately held industrial gas enterprise, and one of its employees failed to properly inspect or repair a liquid nitrogen cryogenic freezing system that led to the deadly Jan. 28 nitrogen leak at the Foundation Food Group facility in Gainesville.
Colleen Murphy, the wife of Corey Murphy; Michael Smith, the administrator of Saulo Suarez-Bernal’s estate; Maria Piedad Cabrera Galicia, the mother of Jose de Jesus Elias Cabrera; and Veronica Vellez, the wife of Victor Vellez, have all filed lawsuits against various Messer entities in Gwinnett County Court.
Murphy, whose husband, Corey, served as a production superintendent at the plant, was the first to sue the company, filing her complaint on Tuesday. The other complaints followed on Thursday.
The families of the victims are seeking unspecified damages.
The plant uses nitrogen to flash-freeze chicken on its production lines. A problem with the conveyor belt system that transported the chicken for freezing may have been the cause of the leak, federal investigators with the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said.
The matter is still under investigation, and a full report on the incident could take several years to finish.
Although not harmful in small amounts, gaseous nitrogen can reduce the amount of oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation. The odorless, colorless gas can also cause freeze burns due to its extremely cold temperature.
According to the lawsuits, Messer installed the system in or around December.
“Since the initial installation of the liquid nitrogen system, Messer had received complaints about the system at the subject location,” says Vellez's complaint, which was filed by Cook Law Group and Gainesville attorney Jeffery Talley. "Despite such complaints, Messer failed to properly inspect, test, repair and/or shut the system down until it could be properly repaired."
Smith's lawsuit filed by Fried Goldberg and Immigration & Injury Attorneys, Barrios alleges that the machine installed by Messer “never worked properly and had multiple issues with it that left it susceptible to leaking nitrogen.”
The families also sued a man who attempted to service the system days before the leak, blaming him for failing to fix the problems or warn workers of the danger posed by nitrogen.
More than 130 workers were exposed to liquid nitrogen before they were evacuated from the facility. Twelve workers suffered serious injuries, and six died.
Amy Ficon, a spokesperson for Messer North America, said the company is reviewing the lawsuits but has no comment at this time.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased, and we express our sincere condolences. We are also aware that other employees and rescue personnel received treatment for injuries at local area hospitals. Our thoughts are also with them and we are happy to hear they have all been released from the hospital,” Ficon said.
Ficon told Courthouse News that Messer is cooperating with authorities who are investigating the incident and is conducting its own investigation.
In the wake of the disaster, organizers and activists have demanded that the plant be inspected before workers return to work and have appealed to local and state representatives for new policies and protections to be put in place.
Foundation Food Group Inc. has said the plant won’t reopen until it’s deemed safe.
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