Workers’ Lawsuit Over Superior Refinery Explosion Moves Forward

Contractors Claim Husky Energy Was Negligent, Failed To Protect Workers

Husky Refinery fire
A plume of darks smoke rises from the refinery fire on April 26. Bob King/Duluth News Tribune

Contract workers who were injured in a 2018 explosion at Husky Energy’s Superior refinery can make the case that the company may have been negligent when it ordered them back into the facility after alarms had sounded, a judge ruled.

The workers’ civil lawsuit in state circuit court in Douglas County will move forward after the judge’s Monday afternoon ruling against the company’s motions to dismiss it.

The workers are seeking damages in excess of $10,000 for medical costs and lost wages as well as pain and suffering in the case. Judge Daniel Tolan ruled that the company could be liable for punitive damages in the case as well.

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The workers say the company ordered them to go back into the refinery even after there were loud knocking sounds and alarms sounding that had caused the plant to be evacuated. The judge found that those accusations, if proven at trial, would constitute serious negligence by the company.

“If (the company) did not affirmatively order them to re-enter, (the workers) would not have been in such close proximity to the explosion and more than likely would not have suffered such large injuries,” Tolan said.

Those injuries included injuries to the workers’ necks and backs, shrapnel injuries, concussions, loss of hearing and post-traumatic stress disorder following the explosion.

Seven men from Texas and Louisiana filed the civil suit in August 2018. They were working for contractors Evergreen North America and Jamar Contractors as part of a five-week “turnaround” to conduct maintenance at the refinery.

Husky, which does business in Wisconsin as Superior Refining Company, had asked for the case to be dismissed, arguing that the contracted turnaround work at the refinery was inherently dangerous and that the company hadn’t been negligent.

In the complaint, the men reported hearing a strange noise that caused them to run out of the facility, fearing it was unsafe. But they were instructed to return to work.

The workers claim the explosion took place about 45 minutes later, throwing the men to the ground and showering them with debris. The men alleged Husky was negligent and failed to warn workers about dangers at the refinery. They also claim the company didn’t properly train or supervise contractors and failed to issue adequate safety equipment.

The explosion and series of fires caused three dozen people to seek medical attention on April 26, 2018, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. The incident caused a temporary evacuation of some city residents due to the presence of hydrogen fluoride, a highly toxic chemical that can be hazardous to human health if released. Debris from the explosion came within 150 feet of the refinery’s hydrogen fluoride tank.

Litigation is still pending in a separate class action lawsuit filed against Husky by Superior residents. Investigations into the April 2018 incident are ongoing.

Husky Energy has been working on its $750 million rebuild of the Superior refinery. Construction was shut down for several months due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company now expects to wrap up the project in 2022 after originally hoping to resume operations next year. The refinery typically employs around 200 people year-round.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated.

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