One Family Settles With DuPont Over Fatal Chemical Spill

DuPont's La Porte facility, where four workers died from a toxic gas leak in November 2014.
DuPont's La Porte facility, where four workers died from a toxic gas leak in November 2014.
U.S. Chemical Safety Board

The family of Crystle Wise, one of the workers killed at DuPont's La Porte plant in November 2014, has reached a settlement with the company. 

The settlement came in the wake of a scathing set of recommendations issued by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board two weeks ago. The board began its investigation after tragedy struck at a DuPont facility on November 15, 2014, inside a pesticide manufacturing unit at the company’s La Porte plant. According to federal investigators, more than 20,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan — which, even in small doses, can attack the nervous system and trigger death by respiratory paralysis — unexpectedly spewed into the third floor of the plant’s pesticide unit when veteran operator Wise opened a faulty valve on her early-morning shift. Wise and the three men who rushed in to help her and other workers — Wade Baker and brothers Robert and Gilbert Tisnado — also died from the toxic fumes. 

As federal investigators began looking into the accident, there were troubling disclosures about the conditions Wise, Baker and the Tisnado brothers were working under. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration came out with its findings on the DuPont accident earlier this year, unequivocally blaming the four deaths on DuPont’s failure to fix persistent problems at the La Porte plant. OSHA then fined the company about as much as it can under federal law: For more than a dozen willful, repeat or serious violations at the La Porte plant, OSHA has fined DuPont about $370,000, pocket change for a company that posted $35.7 billion in revenue in 2013. 

While CSB investigators don't have the power to fine the companies they investigate, their investigation reports can be incredibly influential.

Even though the final DuPont investigation report has yet to be released, CSB came to Houston two weeks ago and presented its interim report publicly. The board's interim report refuted DuPont's longstanding claim that the accident was caused by operator error. The CSB investigators found that many of the systems that should have been in place to prevent such accidents were not, and that some of the safety precautions and systems that were in place were defective and had never been replaced, fixed or even tested for their effectiveness. Safety failures included a lack of proper warning systems, respiratory protection and ventilation systems, along with a handful of other major deviations from industry and DuPont’s own safety system protocols.

The families of the victims filed lawsuits against DuPont shortly after the accident. Brent Coon, the lawyer representing Wise's family, says that the blame for the accident rests squarely on DuPont. "Every person, and every company, should be judged not by their words but by their deeds. DuPont has talked up their industry leadership in safety for decades," Coon said in a prepared statement. "Unfortunately, from what we have proven in this case and what we know from a string of recent fatalities and injuries at other DuPont facilities, they have not been practicing what they preached."

Wise's family announced the settlement on Wednesday for an undisclosed amount. The settlement also requires DuPont to have a moment of silence recognizing the tragedy and those killed on the anniversary of the incident system-wide for the next decade, and to contribute to the American Humane Society in Wise's honor, according to a statement sent out by Coon. 

“My family recognizes that money will not bring my mom back. Hopefully, getting everyone at DuPont to take a moment every year to remember our losses will also help them remember to do all the right things going forward so that tragedies like this do not happen again," Jasmine Wise said in a statement. "I hope the settlement leads to saving human lives in this industry and also the lives of the animals my mom loved so much. My mom was a very kind and generous person, and she moved and went to work at this plant just last year to be closer to me and my young son. I know in my heart that she is proud of the actions I have taken to try to make something good out of something so horribly bad.” 

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