GP fire victim's attorney considering lawsuit

Emergency vehicles at the entrance to the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant (Source: KTRE Staff)
Emergency vehicles at the entrance to the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant (Source: KTRE Staff)
Emergency vehicles at the entrance to the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant (Source: KTRE Staff)
Emergency vehicles at the entrance to the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant (Source: KTRE Staff)
Emergency vehicles at the entrance to the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant (Source: KTRE Staff)
Emergency vehicles at the entrance to the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant (Source: KTRE Staff)

CORRIGAN, TX (KTRE) - Attorneys for one of the seven people injured after a fire at the Georgia-Pacific plywood plant Saturday are planning on filing a lawsuit.

Depending on the results of an ongoing investigation, the lawsuit could be filed against the third-party companies that designed the fire suppression system and electronic sensors at a sander.

Jane Leger, an attorney for Provost Umphrey in Beaumont, said their firm is representing Kenneth Morris, 58. She said Morris, a maintenance employee at the plywood plant, is still at Memorial Hermann Hospital with serious burn injuries.

"He's got significant burn injuries, but he is holding his own at the moment," Leger said. "And the family is very, very hopeful."

"Mr. Morris is in very serious condition" said Lufkin attorney Mike Love. "He's got burns over about 42 percent of his body, and we are very much concerned about him and his recovery at the moment but appreciate everyone's prayers and support."

Morris was one of four employees that were airlifted to Memorial Hermann Hospital after the fire at the plywood plant. As of Wednesday, three of the GP employees were listed in critical condition, and one was listed in fair condition. The other three employees were treated and released from a Lufkin hospital.

"We plan on filing a lawsuit for our client based on what we learned yesterday. Of course, we were allowed to go in and do an examination and an inspection of the area but much of the equipment involved is duct work that is installed under the roof," Leger said. "Although we did get a look, we did not get an up close look. Georgia Pacific has agreed to work with us with dismantling that equipment and bringing it down to ground level so our experts can take a better look at it."

Leger said, based on the limited inspection their experts were able to do, there will be third-party litigation.

In Texas, you cannot sue your employer, even if they are at fault of causing your injuries, unless they kill you, and their conduct in doing so is grossly negligent," Leger said "So, it's a higher standard than just general negligence."

Leger said, at this point, her law firm is planning on filing the lawsuit on companies other than Georgia-Pacific. She said Georgia-Pacific officials have been cooperating with her law firm.

Eric Abercrombie, a spokesman for Georgia-Pacific, said company officials are unable to comment on this matter at this time because it has become a legal matter.

Leger said her law firm has taken a very major and important step in the process but stressed it hasn't been completed yet.

"We have not started drafting the lawsuit because we weren't even aware who the potential third parties might be until yesterday, and we still don't know if these other companies will be sued until we get all the pieces of the puzzle put together," Leger said.

Attorneys with Provost Umphrey have drafted a temporary restraining order and injunction that they will file against Georgia-Pacific if the company doesn't allow their experts to go into the GP plywood mill to look around as part of their investigation.

"We have not had to file that temporary restraining order at this time," Leger said. "However, it has been drafted. If we get to a point where we feel like Georgia-Pacific is not properly preserving the scene or evidence then it will be filed immediately."

Leger said if it comes to that, the restraining order will be filed in Polk County. She said the lawsuit's filing location depends on where the third-party companies are located.

The law firm's experts will be looking at third-party companies that designed the fire suppression system and installed the electronic sensors used to monitor the fire suppression system.

"We don't know that they've done anything wrong at this point, so I don't really want to name them until our experts conclude that they have some responsibility as to what happened," Leger said.

Love echoed what Leger said.

"It's a little early to talk about filing a lawsuit at this point, but we are in the very beginning stages of this investigation, and so far, Georgia Pacific is cooperating with that," Love said. "We have been on site two times. Once yesterday for about six hours and again this afternoon for about an hour and a half."

On Wednesday, experts got a chance to look at the ducting equipment near the sander where the fire occurred, Leger said.

"Yesterday was a very important step in the right direction, but it's just one piece of a very, complicated puzzle that we've got to put together and our experts, by virtue of getting to look at the equipment, now know what other pieces of the puzzle we need to be requesting from Georgia-Pacific, and once we get that information, we can put those pieces in and ultimately we'll have that puzzle completely solved," Leger said.

Leger said that her firm's experts learned that the piece of equipment where the fire broke out was not a boiler. It was a sander that is used to finish off plywood. She said the dust collection system removes dust from the sanding process and takes it outside the facility, where it is stored in a bag house.

"It's important for that type of facility to have a good dust collection and control system because, as we all know, dust can be explosive if not properly handled," Leger said. "We didn't know if it was a fire involved or an explosion, but as we learned yesterday, the evidence seems to clearly indicate that there was a fire and one part of the system that initiated this entire event that ultimately concluded with an explosion in the bag house."

Love said the experts are currently looking at all the systems in place - the dust system, the fire suppression systems, and the bag house itself to "determine exactly what did happen to cause the explosion."

"It is in our understanding at this time that the fire had actually started earlier and was going on for some time before the explosion actually occurred in the bag house," Love said. "It looks like the fire started in a different part of the plant and had been going on for some time."

In a previous East Texas News story, Abercrombie said the fire and explosion occurred at approximately 6:30 p.m. Saturday. He said the bag house, which collects dust from sanded plywood, is a structure similar to a grain silo that is 25 feet high and 12 feet in diameter.

Abercrombie said anytime you work with wood and wood fiber it can get hot and a fire can happen. He goes on to say that Georgia-Pacific is fully equipped to deal with those types of situations and at this time the cause of the incident Saturday is unknown.

According to Abercrombie, a fire happened in the bag house and the pressure built up inside. The explosion doors, which are designed to open and vent out pressure, did what they were designed to do in such an incident.

"It was contained to the bag house and a bag house is where we collect dust from the sanding of our plywood," Abercrombie said. "It's part of the process. It's also an environmental control to help reduce the emissions of particles into the atmosphere."

Abercrombie said there were employees in the vicinity when the doors opened to release the pressure and flames came out through those doors.

Georgia-Pacific has provided accommodations for the families of those employees injured so they could be with them during this time, Abercrombie said. He said their thoughts and prayers are with those families.

GP has shut down operations at the Corrigan mill. Abercrombie said it is unclear when the facility will re-open. Representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted an on-site investigation at the plywood mill earlier this week.

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