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Jury Awards Injured Smelter Millwright $1.89 Million Worker Suffered Broken Bones, Internal Injuries, Burns In ‘91 Explosion At Stevens County Magnesium Plant

A millwright who was severely injured in a 1991 explosion at the Northwest Alloys magnesium smelter has won the largest jury award in Stevens County history.

Superior Court Judge Fred Stewart was to take final action today on the $1.89 million award. Northwest Alloys spokesman Ozzie Wilkinson said company officials hadn’t decided whether to appeal the judgment if Stewart approves it.

Jim Anderson, 33, suffered a severely fractured pelvis, a dislocated hip and ankle, a broken back, broken ribs, numerous internal injuries, and first- and second-degree burns on his head, chest and legs. His face and thighs are speckled with metal that cannot be removed.

The accident at the Addy, Wash., plant, occurred when Anderson used a grinder to remove a temporary cover that had been tack-welded atop an 11-foot-deep magnesium crucible. The crucible was partially filled with water and magnesium sludge, which reacted to create highly explosive gases, including hydrogen.

A spark from the grinder touched off an explosion that shot Anderson headfirst into a metal grate above the crucible. Then, still tethered by his safety harness, Anderson slammed into the side of the crucible.

Co-workers found Anderson dangling with his leg wrapped around his neck, bleeding and burned, but still conscious.

In 1989, Northwest Alloys employee John Carpenter was burned to death with molten metal in a crucible explosion. The explosion occurred when Carpenter lowered a 428-pound bag of airfilter magnesium dust into the crucible.

A lawsuit by Carpenter’s family was dismissed in part because the state worker compensation law protects employers from suits over workplace accidents.

Anderson’s case was different because he was employed by a Northwest Alloys contractor, J.E. Merit, a branch of Jacobs Engineering of Houston. Northwest Alloys conceded that much of the work Anderson was doing at the time he was injured was directed by Northwest Alloys supervisors.

Alloys attorney Rich Robinson of Seattle argued that J.E. Merit or Anderson were responsible. Merit’s contract called for the firm to train its employees and “it was apparent that they had not trained Mr. Anderson or he would not have done what he did,” Robinson said.

But the jury agreed with Anderson’s attorney, Richard Kuhling of Spokane, that Northwest Alloys was entirely responsible for the accident, which resulted from a multimillion-dollar program to develop a new smelting method.

The experiment was abandoned, although not because of the accident, Wilkinson said. He said the accident did cause grinding to be added to the list of activities for which employees must get a permit from management.

Some Northwest Alloys officials knew that mixing magnesium sludge and water would produce explosive gases, but those who worked directly with Anderson were unaware, Kuhling said.

“If I’d have known, I wouldn’t have been there and I think, if Northwest Alloys had known, there wouldn’t have been all those people on top of that tank,” Anderson said. “The day before (the explosion), they had 10 to 12 people up on top of that tank and some of them were smoking. It could have killed all of them.”

Anderson made a remarkable recovery after three months of hospitalization, but is incapable of demanding physical labor. He can’t stoop or lift more than 30 pounds, and can neither stand nor sit for extended periods.

“No matter what I do, I’m always in pain,” Anderson said, adding that doctors have told him his injuries probably will require medical treatment for the rest of his life.

Still, Anderson said he is determined to return to work. He is being trained to grow Christmas trees.

The jury award is to cover Anderson’s past and future wage losses as well as medical costs, which are about $175,000 so far, and his suffering. The award also must cover legal expenses from two trials and repayment of about $300,000 to the state worker compensation program.

The case resulted in a mistrial last August when a jury was split 9-3 in favor of Anderson. A majority of 10 is required under state law. A second jury took only 3 hours on April 7 to return a verdict against Northwest Alloys on an 11-1 vote.

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