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Jury Awards $180 Million To Men Burned In Grain Bin Explosion

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A federal jury in St. Louis has awarded $180 million to three men battered and burned while working in a Chester, Ill., grain bin that exploded in 2010.

As WBBM Newsrasdio's John Cody reports, one of the men, John Jentz, 38, of St. Peter, Minn., remembers the explosion at the ConAgra grain bin clearly.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's John Cody reports


"I heard the bang. I heard the rushing of the air, and the fireball," he said.

Jentz's co-worker, Robert Schmidt, 35, was riding down a single-lift hoist when the explosion occurred.

"It was probably, what, the third boom when I realized that an explosion was happening, and I just froze, and I knelt, and I started praying," Schmidt said. "I thought, this is it – I was going to die."

A third man, Justin Becker, 31, was working inside the bin when the explosion occurred.

Chicago attorney Robert Clifford, who represented Jentz and Schmidt, said there had been signs of trouble in the grain bin before the explosion.

"Temperatures readings of up to 400 degrees," Clifford said.

Clifford asserted that grain bin operators were just trying to save product.

"Whether it was because they didn't want to close down the facility, or they were trying to save the product that they were trying to extract so that they could resell it – this particular product is used in pet food and livestock," he said.

Attorneys said ConAgra also rejected calls from fire inspectors before the explosion.

Attorney Mark Taxman, representing Becker, said those in charge dropped the ball.

"This case was about folks at the top of the chain of command, who have the power to make decisions about safety, failing to make those decisions – not for one hour, not for two hours, not for three, not for five hours, but for five weeks – and then this horrible incident happened that essentially ruined the lives of these three young men."

Clifford said the St. Louis jury awarded the three victims $100 million in punitive damages to send a safety message to the agribusiness giant.

Individually, Jentz received $41 million in compensatory and $34 million in punitive damages. He sustained months of burn surgery, can no longer work outside in the sun, nor inside at a keyboard. He has nerve damage and trouble walking.

Schmidt received $3 million in compensatory and $33 million punitive damages for burns to his hands and head.

Becker received $33 million in punitive damages.

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