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Oil and gas worker injured in frac tank explosion awarded $30 million in Colorado federal court

Oil and gas worker injured in frac tank explosion awarded $30 million in Colorado federal court
Oil and gas worker injured in frac tank explosion awarded $30 million in Colorado federal court 03:05

Steve Straughen suffered life-altering injuries when a frac tank he was working on exploded and he was thrown in the air. Now, Straughen has just won a $30 million judgment in Colorado federal court. 

The explosion happened in December 2019 while Straughen was working at a site near the intersection of County Roads 90 and 35 in Weld County. 

Steve Straughen  CBS

A federal jury determined the oil and gas company he worked for, BHS, owned by DHI Energy Service, owes Straughen $30 million for their alleged negligence because the tank he was working on had holes in it, which created an explosive reaction.

"We all have a job to do... and from their perspective, they had one job, and their job was to maintain proper tanks... and it didn't happen, they didn't do it, so sometimes you have to deal with the consequences of that," Straughen said in an interview with CBS News Colorado on Friday, the day after the verdict. "They have that one job, and I hope from here on out, they do it."

As a former nuclear weapons technician in the Air Force, Straughen loved working in oil and gas, he says it was his passion, but the explosion ended his ability to work in the industry ever again. 

He remembers bits and pieces from the day it happened, but what he does remember, sticks out poignantly in his mind, even four years later. 

"I remember my mindset being one of puzzle solving, something was different, not sure what, want to find out... the next memory I have is I'm standing on top of a frac tank, and my operator's on the tank next to me, and I said, 'just in case, shut that valve,' and it was a valve on top of an oil tank full of oil, and he shut the valve, and by the time my head turned back to the tank, boom, explosion, and my next memory is I was up quite a ways, I could see Denver, and I remember looking down at where I was coming down to and thinking don't hit your head, land on your feet, and the next thing I remember, I'm in the hospital," Straughen recalled. 

Because Straughen had the forethought to ask the operator to shut the valve to the oil tank, his attorney says he prevented an even more deadly explosion and saved his life and the lives of several others on the site that day. If the valve had been opened, he says the massive oil tank would have gone up in flames. 

Still, Straughen suffered a long list of critical injuries. 

"Broke my ankle, required surgery, broke my knee, required surgery, broke my left hip, required surgery, essentially broke my pelvis in half, that also needed surgery, broke my back in a few places, broke almost all of my ribs," he said. 

Eventually, his lower leg had to be amputated.

"This was one of the most rewarding cases I've ever worked on," said his attorney, Kurt Zaner, partner with Zaner Harden Law. "I am just so pleased with the jury, and the hard work they put in to deliver this verdict for Steve and his family."

Zaner hopes this case will help encourage the prioritization of safety at other Colorado work sites. 

"I think this was a big case for the oil and gas industry, and it helps send a message to make sure that the products you're delivering are safe," Zaner said. "With every trial, when you hold a company accountable, it can help change practices to make the world safer, that's why I do what I do."

Straughen says the $30 million verdict will also make a big difference for him and his family.

"It's about time. When I got hurt, what I lost with my two children is time, trying to get that time back and do what I can with them, that's kind of the goal with all this," Straughen said. 

CBS News Colorado reached out to DHI Energy Service, BHS, and their attorneys for comment, but has not heard back, and no word yet if the decision will be appealed.

In the meantime, Zaner says the company is no longer operating the kind of frac tanks involved in the explosion.

UPDATE: Man who lost leg in fracking explosion loses $14 million from jury award, because of Colorado cap laws

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