Families settle for $27M in fatal W.Va. smokestack fire

By Steve Korris | Apr 27, 2011

C. Fitzsimmons


MOUNDSVILLE –- With jurors ready to examine a fatal fire in an emissions stack at an American Electric Power plant, defendants agreed to settle all claims for $27 million.

Marshall Circuit Judge David Hummel approved the settlement and sent jurors home April 20. He hadn't signed an order as of April 26.

Tiffani Talbert, widow of Pullman Power worker Gerald Talbert, will receive the bulk of the proceeds. The settlement also covers two Pullman Power workers who spent four hours above the flames at the top of the 976 foot stack.

Hummel said that after jury selection, he led a conference among defendants, insurers and Wheeling attorney Clayton Fitzsimmons.

"I facilitated the settlement conference myself," Hummel said.

He said all parties asked him to hold the conference, and all agreed he could talk to each of them outside the presence of the others.

Normally, a lawyer can't talk to a judge without the other side's lawyer on hand.

The fire started in 2006 during construction of the stack. A cage that had protected Gerald Talbert from hazards turned into his death trap.

The fire stranded Timothy Wells of New Martinsville, David Earley of New Matamoras, Ohio, and Jay McDonald of Kanab, Utah, at the top of the stack that was more than 900 feet high and 34 feet in diameter on March 4, 2006. The fire occurred at AEP's Kammer-Mitchell power plant, located in Marshall County, while crews were installing a fiberglass lining in the smokestack.

Their rescuers came from above, in a Maryland state police helicopter that lowered a bucket and hauled them to safety.

Tiffani Talbert, Wells, and Earley sued American Electrical Power, Pullman Power, and nine other defendants in Marshall Circuit Court. Moundsville attorney Donald Kresen represented Earley, and Pittsburgh attorney James Villanova represented Wells.

"They had no evacuation plan," Wheeling attorney Bob Fitzsimmons (Clayton's father) said.

Talbert's widow, Tiffani, Earley and Wells filed a lawsuit against AEP and 10 other defendants, including Pullman Power of Kansas City, Mo., in 2006. The suit accused the companies of negligence and claimed they knew working conditions inside the smokestack were dangerous.

Talbert blamed a defective cable on a lift that controlled his cage.

The liners, Bob Fitzsimmons explained, help prevent corrosion of the concrete.

For years, Bob Fitzsimmons said, the liners were made of steel alloys or brick. Then companies discovered that fiberglass was a cheaper material but more combustible -- a fact sadly realized by the Talbert family, he said.

Talbert, who was working in a cage inside the smokestack when the fire occurred, died. He was just 27, the father of three children -- one who was born a month after his death -- Fitzsimmons said.

Earley, Wells and McDonald waited for four hours on scaffolding hundreds of feet high before they were finally rescued by a helicopter.

Trial began on April 19, and jury selection ended at 3:20 p.m. The settlement conference started at 3:30 p.m., and ended at 9 p.m.

Hummel said the parties agreed on an amount but didn't resolve all other issues. Trial resumed in the morning, and Fitzsimmons delivered his opening argument.

Jurors heard nothing further, except news of settlement and thanks for their service.

"I thought it was a very fair settlement that the clients wish to accept," Bob Fitzsimmons said. "I think it was fair for both sides based on the acts that had occurred. Also, I think it was a recognition that there were problems at the work site."

He said representatives of the companies apologized to the Talbert family after the settlement was reached.

"On behalf of AEP, we express our condolences to Mrs. Talbert and the Talbert family," AEP spokeswoman Carmen Prati-Miller told The Associated Press on Monday.

Fitzsimmons said the litigation -- which included more than 60 depositions and multiple experts -- was important because it caused changes in the workplace.

"Many of those problems now have been remedied by the companies," he said.

According to the AP, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Pullman Power $107,100 for safety violations following the fire.

Jessica Karmasek of LegalNewsline.com contributed to this report.

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