A multimillion-dollar wrongful death and injury lawsuit has been filed in San Antonio as a result of the Valero Refinery explosion in early March in which a subcontractor was killed and two others were severely burned in Memphis.
The lawsuit alleges severe and gross negligence - from failing to ensure that there were no hazardous or flammable gases in the flare line to providing timely firefighting assistance and having automatic firefighting equipment in place. It claims that the March 6 fire was the third one at the Memphis refinery in less than two years.
"This is the worst I've ever seen," said personal injury attorney Anthony "Tony" Buzbee of Houston . "This is considered 'hot work.' Valero signs off that it is safe to work. They let these men go in an area where hydrocarbons were still flowing. They really just dropped the ball on many, many kinds of fronts."
While the lawsuit does not specify a monetary amount, Buzbee said the damages would be in the millions of dollars.
A Valero spokesman declined to comment about the lawsuit.
The civil lawsuit was filed by Richard Cuevas, a foreman of the five-man work crew who was on the platform when the explosion happened, and Luis Santos, who was also on the platform. In addition, Cuevas also filed the lawsuit on behalf of his two brothers, Nicolas Cuevas, who died and Daniel Reyes Cuevas, who remains at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis with burns over 70 percent of his body.
Buzbee said Daniel Cuevas recently regained consciousness. He communicates by blinking his eyes to answer yes and no questions.
Guadalupe Torres also is still in The Med with burns over 45 percent of his body. Torres is not a part of the lawsuit.
All five men worked for JV Industrial of Pasadena, Texas. The subcontractor performs maintenance at oil refineries during plant turnarounds.
On March 6, the workers were told to block off a flare line that is on a two-story platform. Before the men were sent to the flare line, the lawsuit said Valero personnel were "supposed to ensure the flare line was free of flammable gases ... (and) that fire protection and fighting gear were immediately available." Flares are the torchlike towers topped by fire at the refinery that act as safety devices where pressurized gases can be routed and burned when necessary.
Around 3 p.m. on the day of the explosion, the workers removed the bolts from the flare flange when a large flash fire erupted.
"The fire was of such magnitude that it knocked Richard Cuevas and Luis Santos backwards from where they were working approximately 50 feet away. The force of the blast blew Nicolas Oscar Cuevas off of the flare platform. When he hit the ground, he was still on fire. Richard Cuevas and Luis Santos spent more than five minutes in an effort to extinguish the flames, without assistance. It took more than 10 minutes before any of those burned received assistance from trained personnel," the suit alleged.
Memphis Fire Department officials said Thursday that the cause of the fire has not been determined. The fire was extinguished before firefighters arrived on the scene.
In a hearing last week, a judge denied the plaintiff's motion requiring Valero to shut down its Memphis plant so that a 36-inch gate valve could be removed and tested. The suit contends that the valve leading the flare assembly was leaking and allowing hydrocarbons to build up in the work area.
- Lela Garlington: (901) 529-2349
Copyright 2012 The Commercial Appeal, Inc.
(Originally published April 16, 2012, in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.)