Employees Sue Candle Factory after Tornado

21 Dec, 2021 Liz Carey

                               

Mayfield, KY (WorkersCompensation.com) – Workers injured when a tornado destroyed a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, Dec. 10 have filed suit against the company claiming they were told to stay in the building. 

According to several outlets, the lawsuit alleges that managers at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory told employees who asked to leave that they would be fired if they left early. The suit also alleges the factory violated Kentucky workplace safety regulations, and have since engaged in a cover-up to protect the company. 

Eight people were killed at the factory when an F4 tornado ripped through western Kentucky. The storm was one of several that left a path of destruction nearly 200 miles long, and kill at least 85 people in four states. In Kentucky, the death toll rose to 75 Friday. 

Lauren Barclay, an employee at the factory, told NBC News that employees knew the tornado was going to hit, and that many employees were on the factory floor when the roof started to rip off. At that point, she said, she and a co-worker tried to make it to the bathroom to find shelter, but the two were lifted up into the air and thrown back several feet. 

In response, a spokesman for the company has repeatedly denied the charges and has said the workers were free to leave at any time. 

Mayfield Consumer Products CEO Troy Propes told NBC’s Kate Snow no one was forced to stay at the factory. 

“If we believed we could do something differently,… in hindsight, I think all of us would do something differently…but it’s such a gamble to say ‘Leave…,’” he said. 

However, NBC reported that at least one worker said when the first tornado siren went off, some employees did leave, but that for some reason 110 employees stayed. 

According to an investigative report by NPR, OSHA fined the factory $16,000 in 2019 for safety violations. NPR said the factory had an injury rate that exceeded industry averages. 

It is unclear if any of the employees have filed workers’ compensation claims. Additionally, it’s unclear if the suit could be dismissed by the courts, due to the exclusive remedy of the state’s workers’ compensation statute. 

Even more is the question of whether or not a company can be held liable for a natural disaster. 

Danny Cevallos, an MSNBC legal analyst, said Kentucky workers’ compensation statutes hold every employer liable for an employee’s injury or death “arising out of and in the course of employment.” However, he pointed out, employees of the candle plant would have to prove that their injuries were a result of their employment. 

“Kentucky courts have held since the 1940s that if employment exposes employees to the unique danger of a natural disaster (like lightning) and they're struck while working, their injuries "arise" from their employment for compensation purposes,” he said in a commentary on MSNBC. “However, the key is this: The risk of that job must be greater than that to which others of the public are exposed. If it's equally possible that the employees could have been hurt by a tornado at home, these workers may not be eligible for compensation.” 

Cevallos said the company could stand by Propes’ statement to the media that supervisors were never given an order to keep employees at the plant, and that any supervisors who did threaten employees did so based on suspicion and conjecture. Or, Cevallos said, the company could also argue that even if supervisors ordered employees to stay, the employees could have chosen their lives over their jobs and left anyway, but admitted that argument would likely not sit well with the public. 

At issue, he said, is not just whether or not supervisors threatened employees against leaving, but how the company assessed the threat of tornados at the time. 

“If the standard is that all employees should always go home immediately at any tornado warning, then it won’t be too hard to hold the company responsible,” he said. “But practically speaking, the rule is probably something less than that.” 

The complainants are seeking an “unspecified amount” in compensation, Amos Jones, the Washington, DC-based attorney representing some of the workers told CNN. 

"I've been making statements and every statement I've been making they denied it, and that's just not right," Elijah Johnson, one of Jones’ clients who worked at the factory told CNN Thursday. "They're neglecting everyone that's in there." 

Bob Ferguson, the company spokesperson, said earlier in the week that employees were free to come and go without retribution, and that some employees did leave that night. 

"You can basically sign out so they know you're gone and leave it at any time," Jim Douglas said from his hospital bed. Douglas also said some employees left that night. 

Douglas was working in the factory when the tornado came through. As the building fell, Douglas was hit by an interior wall and throw to the ground. Douglas told CNN he believes he was under 15 feet of debris. When he was rescued, he was taken to the hospital and was treated for nerve damage.


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    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

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