A hearing is set later this month in a lawsuit alleging that in addition to federal criminal liability — which Midwest Grain Products Inc. and Harcros Chemicals agreed to assume in recent months — for a 2016 accident in Atchison, the firms are civilly responsible for one death and other lasting injuries.
As most know, the MGP Inc. production plant that serves as a landmark in town is the site where a driver working for Harcros mistakenly combined hazardous chemicals in October 2016. The mistake triggered the formation of a toxic, jaundiced chlorine gas cloud over the town, harming dozens.
Both firms have since admitted to violating the federal Clean Air Act of 1963 and have reached separate plea deals with U.S. prosecutors, but attorney Andrew K. Smith of Independence, Missouri, representing various local clients, isn’t satisfied.
According to the Wyandotte County District Court, hearings in the ongoing lawsuit backed by Humphrey, Farrington & McClain P.C. are to resume at 9:30 a.m. in Division 7 on the first floor of the courthouse, located at 710 North 10th St. in Kansas City, Kansas. Smith’s firm has been involved in civil complaints against the two companies since October 2018, according to district court filings.
A number of the plaintiffs, per a civil complaint, believe their exposure to the gas cloud in October 2016 caused “severe, permanent and/or progressive damage to the lungs ... respiratory system, and other diseases ...” In addition, plaintiff Cheryl Reynolds filed a claim of wrongful death on behalf of her late husband, Herbert W. Buckley, in her capacity as his heir. Buckley died on Sept. 18, 2017, at the age of 93.
Smith said that despite being of advanced age, medical examinations by Buckley’s own doctors in the wake of the disaster, before his death, indicated respiratory illness and other ailments caused in part by toxic chemical exposure.
“In any case where a person’s death is caused by the negligence of another, the question is, ‘What was that person’s life worth to him? And to his family?’ ... Whether you’re [age] 10 or 15, or 90, or 100, each person should be entitled to every minute of their life that they will have, but for someone else’s negligence,” he said.
“I believe that as we approach the end of our lives, those minutes become more precious, not less.”
Previous reporting on the case has largely focused on efforts by federal prosecutors to reach a federal criminal settlement, as regards MGP and Harcros. The chemical producer is based in Kansas City, and this is the cause of the lawsuit being brought in Wyandotte County, not Atchison County, Smith said. Observing that “the parties are too far apart” to envision a civil settlement today, Smith said a jury trial is the likely outcome.
Smith spoke as to why this case is being advanced now, and not back in 2016 or 2017.
“Due to the insidious and complex nature of injuries from exposures to chemicals like this, people often fail to relate their symptoms to their exposure for some time,” Smith said. “It is my belief that there are likely many more people suffering these symptoms that simply haven’t made the connection.”
In November, upon reaching an agreement to plead guilty to one violation of the Clean Air Act with the office of U.S. Attorney Richard Hathaway, MGP said it is “ready to move forward after cooperating fully with federal, state and local safety officials for the past three years.”
“MGP remains committed to its role as a good corporate citizen and to ensuring the safety and well-being of employees and the communities in which it operates,” the company said at that time in a statement.
Smith said discussion about what has been done since the accident doesn’t get his clients the justice they deserve.
“All of those things should’ve been done before. And, they could’ve been done before,” he said. “ ... Atchison wouldn’t have been exposed in such a sort of cataclysmic level, where it looks like some sort of Hitchcock movie in the media, with the cloud and the drone images, etc. And, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Reached by phone and email on Thursday evening, an MGP spokesman declined to comment as to the statements by Humphrey, Farrington & McClain P.C. Voicemails and emails to Harcros at its Kansas City headquarters have received no reply.