Mobile Dredging & Pumping Co. has agreed to pay $5.8 million to settle lawsuits filed in the wake of a fire in a Philadelphia steam plant — one brought by the estate of a man who was burned over 96 percent of his body and died 18 hours later, the other by a man who survived burns over 30 percent of his body.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys Anthony J. Baratta of Baratta & Russell and Robert J. Mongeluzzi of Saltz Mongeluzzi Barrett & Bendesky said the settlement came after a half-day mediation conducted by attorney David Ward Murphy, a former judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County and president of Mana ADR.
In the joint settlement, Mobile will pay $3.55 million to Baratta’s client, the estate of Eric Tennant, and $2.25 million to Mongeluzzi’s client, Charles Temple.
Baratta said the plaintiffs originally demanded a total of $5.4 million to settle, but that Mobile rejected the offer. When Mobile later tried to revive the offer, he said, the plaintiffs informed them that the demand had risen to $5.8 million, and that that figure, too, would rise if it were not accepted immediately.
Mongeluzzi said the case finally settled when Mobile hired a new lawyer, Thomas A. Kuzmick of Rawle & Henderson, to take over the case after the mediation.
According to court papers, Tennant and Temple were both employed by Trigen Energy Corp., which operates a steam distribution network consisting of 33 miles of buried pipe, distributing steam to customers in Center City Philadelphia and western portions of the city.
Trigen operates two main plants, on Christian Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, and maintains a third plant on Edison Street as a backup for those plants and for use during peak production in the winter.
The accident occurred in January 2002 when Mobile was hired to dislodge ash from a “hopper” in the Edison plant.
According to court papers, the steam at the Edison plant is generated by burning fuel oil in four huge boilers — a process that produces ash as residue.
Each boiler has two hoppers used for collecting ash — each capable of collecting 810 cubic feet of fly ash.
Ordinarily, the ash is removed by vacuuming on a daily basis, but the Edison plant’s hoppers had become clogged, according to the suit.
The suit said Tennant discovered that the opening to the hopper was packed solid with ash, and therefore had to be cleaned manually.
Mobile was hired to perform the manual cleaning, a job it had performed for Trigen on numerous occasions in the past, the suit said.
Relying on advice from Mobile employees, Tennant and Temple began removing the ash with a plastic hose.
But because portions of the ash were still hot, the plastic hose melted and the two men were suddenly in a large cloud of ash that escaped from the hopper.
“Seconds later, embers from within the hopper jumped out into the cloud and a fireball erupted. Both Eric and Charles Temple were on fire,” plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in their settlement memorandum.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that Mobile was to blame for the accident because the company was “extremely experienced in the vacuuming of ash from hoppers and was well aware that the primary danger in vacuuming ash was that it might be hot.”
The use of a plastic hose is acceptable only if the ash is completely cool, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said, but if the ash is hot, it is absolutely necessary to use a metal hose to vacuum it because a plastic hose will melt.
In their mediation memo, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said Mobile “was quite knowledgeable that ash could appear cold on the surface but be boiling hot below the surface.”
The memo said Tennant “suffered unimaginable pain for the long hours before he mercifully died. He was so extensively burned that the paramedics were unable to place an IV line to introduce pain medication into his body.”
Temple, who suffered permanent scars to his head, back and hands, spent a month in the hospital and lost six months of work. He has had numerous skin graft surgeries and needs more in the future, according to the memo.
Mongeluzzi said he filed suit on behalf of Temple long after Baratta had started the suit for Tennant’s estate.
“It was nice to ride on somebody else’s coattails for once,” Mongeluzzi said, noting that Baratta had already conducted numerous depositions.
“He did a tremendous job on the discovery of the case,” Mongeluzzi said.
Baratta was assisted by his partner, Kenneth C. Russell. Mongeluzzi was assisted by his associate, Robert Surh