Sixteen present and former employees of Wal-Mart Distribution Center 6097 in London are asking a federal jury to award them millions of dollars in damages after they allegedly suffered carbon monoxide poisoning while on the job in 2005 – part of a complex legal case that got underway Monday and is expected to last up to six weeks.
Attorneys for the employees told jurors, during their opening arguments in U.S. District Court in London, that their clients, who all worked inside large industrial freezers that hold grocery products waiting to be shipped, suffered permanent and lasting damages because of the incident, ranging from frequent migraine headaches and uncontrollable mood swings to loss a balance and inability to perform some mental functions needed on the job. The damage, they claim, happened during the period of Nov. 29 to Dec. 12 2005 when Wal-Mart hired a Tennessee company, Unarco Materials Handling, Inc. to install a new rack system in the freezers.
According to Don Russo, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, at least two large gas-powered generators were used inside the building during the job, causing dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide to build up. The company should have known better than to use the generators inside, he claims, because there were warnings about possible dangerous carbon monoxide building printed on top of the generators.
“These generators should have never been brought in the building and they should have never been used,” Russo said. “They were used for nine hours a day.”
Unarco subcontracted the job out to another company, Atlas Material Handling, Inc. that actually performed the labor. Before trial, Atlas settled out of court with some of the original plaintiffs and was terminated from the case. Unarco has filed a counterclaim against the company, however.
Russo said his clients worked up to nine hours a day in the freezers in high carbon monoxide conditions. They complained to superiors about feelings of lightheadedness and nausea but were told to continue working, Russo said.
Plaintiff’s attorneys contend they plan to call many medical “experts” to the witness stand, including University of Kentucky Medical Center Chief of Neurology Dr. Joe Berger, to testify his clients suffered classic symptoms and injuries from overexposure to carbon monoxide.
In a separate opening argument, Steve O’Brien, who represents 30-year-old Greg Wells, a plaintiff in the case, told jurors the personal story of his client. He said Wells was a former Marine who aspired to become a Kentucky State Police Trooper or FBI agent, but was unable to do so because of medications he is taking to treat conditions caused by the carbon monoxide. He remains employed at Wal-Mart D.C. 9097 but has taken several demotions and has missed about 150 days of work as a result of the incident. He alone is asking for over $7 million in damages to pay for medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.
Wells wrote letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaining about the incident.
Attorneys for plaintiffs in the case argue that Unarco’s contract with Wal-Mart specifically states it is responsible for the safety of employees while the rack system was installed.
Unarco Attorney Perry Bentley set out to gut many of the plaintiff’s claims with a plethora of defenses.
He first suggested to the jury that Wal-Mart and Atlas were really responsible since they were the ones actually on site when the job was being performed.
“Unarco had used Atlas many other times successfully. Unarco had every reason to believe Atlas would do the job properly. No one contemplated they would put those generators inside,” Bentley told the jury.
“There will be no disagreement, except in the plaintiff’s minds, that Wal-Mart is responsible for the safety of all its employees … Do you think for a second that Wal-Mart is going to allow someone to come in there and do something they don’t know about.”
Bentley pointed out that Wal-Mart had required Atlas employees to complete safety training before performing the work and even issued a safety violation citation to the company on Dec. 10, 2005.
Click the attachment link below to see the original lawsuit filed in the case.