Family of Man Killed in Conroe Workplace Explosion Awarded $29 Million

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The family of an oilfield services worker killed on the job by an explosion of an industrial battery was awarded $29 million by a Houston jury on Wednesday.

On July 30, 2011, Garland Rickie Kelley was working at Professional Directional Enterprises in Conroe when a lithium thionyl chloride battery exploded. Kelley, 38, ultimately died from injuries he suffered in the explosion. He was married and had three children.

Kelley's family alleged that the battery was improperly heated to extend its life for use in an oilfield downhole-drilling tool and was known to be defective. Company officials claimed during a federal investigation of the incident that Kelley and all other employees had been given training materials for their work and then went a step further implying that Kelley was to blame for the accident because he didn't follow the alleged written instructions, according to court documents.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Kelley's wife, Tonya Kelley, and children, included claims of gross negligence and allegations that company officials didn't collect much evidence from the site following the explosion. Much of what the company did collect somehow went missing, according to the lawsuit.

A separate federal investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2011 led to multiple "serious" and other citations against Mr. Kelley's employer for violating federal safety regulations. OSHA's citations added up to about $20,000 in fines.

(That doesn't sound like much but it's actually a fairly impressive amount for OSHA. The agency hasn't updated its fining system in decades so even the fines for "serious" violations are next to nothing in the corporate world. It's worth noting that even with such piddly fines, Professional still spent a year and a half fighting every allegation of wrongdoing from OSHA and refusing to pay any of the fees. The issue was only settled after a lawsuit was filed by the Secretary of Labor.)

After deliberating for a day, a local jury awarded $29 million in damages Tuesday. Professional got 80 percent  of the blame. The other defendant, Excell, the party responsible for the batteries, settled before closing arguments. The jury found them 20 percent liable.

"This verdict should send a message to smaller oil and gas operators that the practice of reheating oilfield tool batteries must stop. The death of Rickie Kelley was absolutely preventable," Tony Buzbee, the lawyer representing Kelley's family, said in a statement.

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