The Louisiana Supreme Court Reduces Damages for Exposure to Toxic Chemical Leaked by Plant in Taft, Louisiana

A Union Carbide Corporation plant facility in Taft, Louisiana, leaked a toxic chemical compound for at least seventeen hours on September 10th and 11th in 1998. Rainwater accumulation from Tropical Storm Frances caused partial collapse of the floating roof on a large tank storing liquid naphtha. Consequently, a tank seal broke allowing escape of liquid naphtha which volatilized and exposed workers and surrounding residential areas to naphtha fumes including the towns of Montz and Killona. An estimated 4.6 million pounds of naphtha vaporized before application of a chemical foam to the tank roof effectively stopped the volatilization hazard.

In the case of Howard v. Union Carbide Corporation, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reduced to negligible amounts the already decided damages awarded to plaintiffs exposed to the naphtha fumes. Specifically, original damages awarded were $3,500, $2,500, and $1,500. However, the Supreme Court reduced these damages to amounts of $500, $250, 150, and $100 based on proximity to the leak with higher awards to those within the plant and lower awards to those in the surrounding residential areas.

Exhibiting a controversial impression of the dangerous chemical involved, as well as defining exposure injuries, the Court concluded “simply no reasonable relationship” exists between the injuries and the original damages awarded. Assuming all fumes are equal regardless of the vastly different compounds which any given chemical leak may constitute, the Court cited other negligible awards in other cases despite the fact that the other cases involved unrelated chemicals.

In fact, the Court categorized exposure injuries to the vaporized naphtha as “mere annoyances.” Acute naphtha exposure symptoms may include irritation of the eyes (stinging sensation in the eyes, tearful eyes), nose irritation (stinging sensation in membranes lining nasal passages), sore throat, and coughing. Notably, the Louisiana Supreme Court determined that immediate exposure symptoms are the only consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals. On the contrary to some specialists, forms of naphtha may be carcinogenic. In addition, naphtha has been determined to be a central nervous system depressant, which is the mechanism for the reported headaches, nausea, dizziness, and the sensation of being inebriated (drunk). Further, components within the naphtha often possess additional harmful qualities.

Finally, the Louisiana Supreme Court uses as support for reducing damage awards the lack of professional medical attention and evacuation, noting that, oftentimes, acute exposure symptoms were self-treated because plaintiffs were not provided with adequate nor accurate exposure details.

If you have faced a similar situation, it is important that you contact an attorney immediately to get the legal advice you deserve. When facing a situation like this, an individual who has been injured must be careful with the lawyer you select because it can mean the difference between recovering your losses and being left in the dark. Call our offices today for a free consultation on your legal rights.