ExxonMobil to pay $1M jury award to woman who chopped off fingers

David Yates Jun. 26, 2008, 8:00am

Minutes before they began deliberating, plaintiff's attorney Brett Thomas told jurors that if they didn't award his client $3.7 million for inadvertently sticking her hand in a rotary feeder, ExxonMobil would throw a party.

Seemingly, jurors thought the oil company executives could party but on a smaller budget, awarding the plaintiff Vickie Hall $1 million for her self-mutilating injury.

The week long trial of Hall vs. ExxonMobil began June 17 in Judge Gary Sanderson's 60th District Court, and concluded Wednesday, June 25.

When a conveyor began spilling polyethyline pellets onto the floor, workers at ExxonMobil came up with modifications to the machine that solved the problem. But within hours, a contract worker had parts of her fingers sliced off while using the altered equipment.

Jurors were asked to decide whether ExxonMobil negligently failed to place a guard over the rotary blade, or if Hall, who knew a spinning blade hovered only inches away from her hand, was solely responsible for her injury.

Hall was an employee of J.E. Merritt working as an independent contractor at ExxonMobil's Beaumont polyethylene plant when she was injured on Nov. 3, 2005.

According to statements made in court, Hall was warned not to stick her hand anywhere near an unguarded rotary blade, but continued to sweep away polyethylene pellets pouring through the fan while simultaneously arguing with her boss. Hall's glove became caught in the blade, slicing off parts of three fingers.

Claiming her hand was caught in an "unsafe machine," Hall filed a negligence suit against the oil giant in June 2006.

"It is not in dispute that (Hall) suffered a catastrophic injury, not only has a piece of her body been taken away but a piece of her life � all because ExxonMobil designed a bad system," Thomas said in his closing remarks.

Countering Thomas' argument, defense attorney Greg Holloway said Hall simply "wasn't paying attention to what she was doing."

Jurors ended up agreeing with both sides, finding that both ExxonMobil and Hall equally were responsible for the incident.

Finding ExxonMobil and Hall each 50 percent negligent, jurors still chose to award Hall $367,000 in lost wages, $300,000 in physical pain and impairment, $150,000 for her disfigurement, $150,000 in mental anguish damages, and $70,000 in medical expenses � totaling $1,037,000 in damages.

During the trial, Hall's boss testified that when he visited Hall in the hospital, she told him that "she knew better" and that it was her fault.

However one of Hall's attorneys, Jeffrey Roebuck of Beaumont, said Hall was in a medicated state at the time of her boss' visit and didn't know what she was saying -- if she even made the remark at all.

The day after the incident, an aluminum guard was placed over the rotary blade, the result of an ExxonMobil safety meeting, said Roebuck.

"(ExxonMobil) didn't have a meeting the first time � to make (the reclaim machine) OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Association) compliant," Roebuck told jurors. "They made a mistake � and designed it wrong."

Roebuck went on to say the reclaim system was a "cheap and easy fix" that sacrificed safety for profit, and that the machine was put into use without any safety policies, equipment or procedures in place to protect workers.

"The (reclaim) system was in place for one day and the first person to come into contact with it had her fingers chopped off," Roebuck said.

But Holloway said the reclaim system was clearly marked with yellow and red tape, signaling caution and danger, and that Hall had been put through extensive safety training to recognize the machine's hazards.

"(Hall) was a trained operator � who knew what she was doing � and knew what a rotary feeder was," Holloway said, adding that the machine's off switch was right in front of her face and she could have hit the switch before sticking her hand near a known hazard.

Plaintiff's expert witness J. Sexton, a safety engineer with more than 30 years experience, testified that even the safest of people will eventually be injured by an unprotected condition, like unshielded spinning blades.

"No matter how you look at it, (a guard) is a good idea," Sexton said.

Sexton added that if ExxonMobil had complied with OSHA standards, the incident could have been prevented.

Holloway called Sexton a "hired gun."

Roebuck and Thomas are partners in the Roebuck and Thomas law firm.

Case No. B177-168

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