Just The Cost Of Doing Business
That's what happens when the price of a life is less than the cost of a safety measure or of a lawyer.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the refinery after two employees were burned to death by superheated water in September.
Another explosion forced the evacuation of the plant for several hours last March. Afterward, OSHA fined the refinery $63,000 for safety violations, including problems with its emergency shutdown system and employee training.
Texas City is the site of the worst industrial accident in U.S. history. In 1947, a fire aboard a ship at the Texas City docks triggered a massive explosion that killed 576 people and left fires burning in the city for days.
"Welcome to life in Texas City," Marion Taylor, 55, said Wednesday as she entered a convenience store shortly after the explosion.
On June 23, 1999, 24-year-old Juan Martinez and his uncle Jose Inez
Rangel were hydro-testing a pipe at the Phillips Chemical plant in
Pasadena, Texas. The pipe was about 10 feet from a reactor that
manufactured plastic used in drinking cups, food containers, and medical
equipment. At a crucial moment, plant operators opened the valves in the
reactor out of sequence, sending an excess of a volatile chemical into
the reactor, where it mixed with a catalyst to create a vapor cloud-and
a fiery explosion. The blast coated Martinez and Rangel with 500-degree
molten plastic. They were burned alive.
Martinez and Rangel were not the first workers to die at the Phillips
plant. All told, 30 workers had been killed and hundreds severely
wounded at the plant in the previous 11 years. The worst of the
accidents happened in 1989, when an explosion killed 23 people at the
plant. The chemical company paid out $40 million to compensate for the
death of one of the victims.
In the lawsuit filed a decade later by Martinez's widow, attorney John
Eddie Williams would write, "No other serial killer in this state has
been allowed to go unpunished and virtually unbridled for so long."
A few months after he wrote that line, Williams was downtown taking the
deposition of a worker from the plant. Williams looked out the window,
he says, and saw smoke. Another explosion at the plant. And another
worker dead-a man who had survived the 1989 blast. Seventy others were
hurt, including four men who suffered third-degree burns over half their
bodies. The explosion set off car alarms a mile away and closed nearby
schools. "The guy being deposed would have been there," says Williams.
All the pieces were in place for a big verdict-a statement from a jury
of average citizens who would punish the company for its long record of
death and indifference. After he presented the case to a mock jury,
Williams says, the mock jurors were so horrified by the facts some of
them began boycotting Phillips products.
But Phillips had little reason to worry. The company didn't even bother
to make a settlement offer to Martinez's family. It knew it could come
into court cushioned by a series of "tort-reform" measures championed by
George W. Bush during his first term as governor of Texas. Among them
was a cap on punitive damages, signed into law by Bush in 1995, which
limited such awards to the greater of $200,000 or twice the economic
damages, plus up to $750,000 for non-economic damages such as pain and
The concept of "Pinto math"
For Texas trial lawyers, awards of that size give mega-corporations like
Phillips the green light to make business and safety decision based on
life-versus-profit calculations they term "Pinto math." That's the crude
calculation used by the Ford Motor Company in the late 1960s and early
1970s when it decided it was cheaper to let hundreds of people die each
year than to spend about $5 per vehicle to prevent Pintos' gas tanks
from exploding in rear-end accidents. Without the threat of high
punitive damages in wrongful death lawsuits, Texas oil and chemical
companies like Phillips have little incentive to spend money to improve
unsafe plants and pipelines. Certainly the government isn't going to
make an impact: Federal officials cited Phillips for serious safety
violations in the 1999 explosion that killed Martinez and Rangel, but
fined the company just $140,000. Steven Daniels, a researcher with the
American Bar Foundation, says "Workers are just at the mercy now of
their employers and the insurance companies."
Find Facing South's PDF file on tort reform here, and read it for even more outrageous examples of the indifference to human suffering that blooms under the cover of really bad law.