$13,900,000 – Breaker Explosion Case Settles

An industrial software technician who suffered serious burns in a plasma explosion when a high-voltage circuit breaker at an asphalt plant shorted out has secured a $13.9 million settlement in his suit against the plant’s owner and operator.

Plaintiffs attorneys Robert J. Mongeluzzi and David L. Kwass of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky said the settlement in Cawthern v. Reading Materials Inc. was reached after a one-day mediation conducted by Russell M. Nigro, the former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice.

According to court papers, James Cawthern was an employee of Process Control Solutions and was assigned on Oct. 9, 2009, to tackle software problems at the Reading Materials plant that had effectively shut down its asphalt manufacturing.

In the first half of the day, Cawthern fixed the problems with the plant’s programmable logic controller – a device that remotely controls the motors that power industrial equipment.

But Cawthern remained on-site in order to run tests in the afternoon to ensure that all the problems had been cured.

While eating his lunch in the plant’s electrical room, Cawthern suddenly saw sparks and detected the odor of ozone gas, prompting him to shove his co-worker, John Hanlon, out of the room.

But before Cawthern could escape, the high-voltage circuit breaker exploded with an intense heat that caused a plasma blast, meaning that the metal components had vaporized.

In the suit against Reading Materials and its corporate parent, Haines & Kibblehouse Inc., plaintiffs lawyers alleged that the accident was the result of a failure to perform routine maintenance.

The company’s chief electrician admitted in his deposition that the maintenance was not performed and testified that the reason was financial, because any work on the electrical system would force “downtime” at the plant.

To prepare for the mediation, Mongeluzzi said his partner, attorney Eunice Trevor, created a video that included key testimony from several expert witnesses, eyewitness accounts of the accident, and footage of Cawthern’s treatment for the horrendous burns he suffered.

The video shows Cawthern days immediately after the accident, with third-degree burns over more than 52 percent of his body, and the gruesome procedure of scraping away the burned skin to prepare for grafting.

Cawthern, 64, also speaks on the video, describing the moment when “I sucked what I thought was my last breath of air,” and the unimaginable pain he felt in the moments after the accident.

A doctor in the video says Cawthern was in excellent physical shape at the time of the accident, regularly swam a half-mile, wrestled with his grandchildren, and worked on converting a dilapidated farmhouse into a modern home, doing all the construction himself.

The video also describes the extensive lung damage Cawthern suffered when he inhaled the vaporized metal, forcing him to undergo 21 invasive lung procedures and leaving him with a chronic cough and permanently limited lung capacity.

Another doctor describes the brain damage Cawthern sustained, saying his short-term memory is so damaged that he can no longer drive to his office because he cannot remember the way.

Cawthern’s wife is also interviewed and says her husband was always active – never watching television or reading – and wonders, “What is his life going to be like now?”

Also in the video, Cawthern’s son describes his father’s constant work on building his dream home and says “without his hands, he’s worthless.”

Cawthern’s physical therapy sessions are also shown as a doctor explains that he suffered permanent nerve damage that makes it difficult to lift his left leg, forcing him to use a walker.

And the damage to Cawthern’s burned hands has left him unable to grip anything, the video shows, as Cawthern attempts to pick up a small bean bag, but can hold it for only a few moments.

Reading Materials’ lawyer, Joseph F. Van Horn Jr. of Bodell Bove Grace & Van Horn, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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