Jury Finds ExxonMobil Liable in 2019 Baytown Plant Explosion

A jury has awarded five plant workers injured in the July 31, 2019 explosion at the ExxonMobil Baytown Olefins Plant a total of $28.9 million. During the explosion a fire broke out and toxic emissions were released.

The law firm of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner represented the five employees, some of whom still work for Exxon, and all of whom were injured to varying degrees. Two of the employees required surgery for their neck and back, respectively. The other two had disc herniations that were handled with injections and other treatment provided by orthopedic surgeons. The final employee had minor injuries, however all five were treated by psychologists or psychiatrists following the event, attorney Benny Agosto said.

“These injuries took place while the employees were escaping or leaving the plant,” Agosto said. “With chemical exposure like this, people are not affected long term due to the length of exposure, they are affected by the pain from the physical injuries and mental anguish.”

According to Agosto, Exxon first detected the popcorn polymer build-up which caused the line to rupture in 1995 but decided not to fix it due to the money that would be lost during the closure for this maintenance.

ExxonMobil’s Senior Advisor of Corporate Media Relations Todd Spitler responded to Houston Press inquiries with a statement saying that although Exxon is sympathetic to the plaintiffs, the company plans to challenge the legal decision.

“We operate to the highest standards to safeguard the health and safety of our workers. We investigated the cause of the incident and have learned from this, and have made improvements to our processes and procedures to prevent recurrence. We are determined to being a valued and respected member of the Baytown community, and we understand that public respect and confidence are earned through performance, open communications and community involvement. We deeply regret any concern, disruption or inconvenience that this incident caused the community. We are sympathetic to the plaintiffs, but intend to appeal based on result.”

According to Agosto, even after Exxon found these polymers – which are incredibly hazardous when exposed to liquid chemicals and gas – in the line, there was no further inspection or monitoring done in the years that followed.

Though the company could have cleared the seeds of popcorn polymer through chemical treatments like passivation or reduce the risk of further build-up by flushing the line and routinely conducting X-rays or scans of the pipe, they chose not to and left the line unattended.

“Even during shutdowns Exxon ignored the line and let it stay shut up and because of the liquid chemicals and vapors in it, it created the perfect combination for the build-up of these polymers,” Agosto said.

The explosion destroyed the unit’s depropanizer tower and launched a 900-foot fireball into the sky. Though most of the damage and injuries occurred to the plant and the plant workers, Agosto said that there were some claims (not handled by their firm) by those in surrounding areas concerning smoke inhalation from the fire.

This is not the first time an accident at this plant has occurred, over the past 10 years the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex for eight safety violations.

Of these, seven were considered serious and lawsuits over these incidents include reports of electrocutions and benzene – a combustible chemical – exposure, according to a press release from Abraham and Watkins.

Agosto said the law firm has another 20 employees who were injured that they filed lawsuits for and that this was the first group to go to trial.

Though the verdict was delivered more than a week ago, it will be finalized at a hearing in March. If Exxon does plan to appeal, there will be 30 days to do so after this hearing.

“This is what happens with big companies, they have the ability and right to appeal and they probably will, but this is about corporate accountability,” Agosto said. “We want chemical plants to take their jobs of safety for the workers in the community very seriously, whether it’s Exxon or BP or anybody else. If they don’t take their safety business seriously, unfortunately bad things will happen.”

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