Judge hears arguments in Imperial Sugar case

Lawyers for both sides were in court today.
Lawyers for both sides were in court today.

By Brooke Kelley - bio | email

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Families are still dealing with the tragedy of the Port Wentworth sugar refinery explosion. For the first time today, Imperial Sugar families took their case to court.

This morning, the lawyers for both the company and the families were in court, hashing out what can and cannot be used once the lawsuit heads to trial.

There's a total of ten families suing the company.

In court today, Imperial Sugar asked Judge Hermann Coolidge to consider three things before heading to trial.

First, they want the court to consolidate all 20 depositions into one for all ten of the cases, so the witnesses won't have to continue to repeat the same thing 10 separate times.

Second, they don't want the court to allow Ken Diaz's deposition to be included. Diaz is the former maintain planner at the Grammercy plant. Imperial Sugar says they don't want Diaz's deposition because it has nothing to do with the Port Wentworth plant.

Third, the company wants to keep certain documents secret so they won't be used in the trails and become open to the public.

Attorney Mark Tate is representing seven of the ten families in the lawsuit and says the court should allow any and all evidence that may impact the case.

"We think that everyone who was hurt out there who lost a loved one deserves to have someone take evidence and information appropriately. I think that is what we should be allowed to do under Georgia law," said Tate.

As for Diaz's statement, Tate says his knowledge is unique and relevant to this case.

The lawyers for Imperial Sugar did not want to go on camera, but this afternoon we did get a statement from the company:

"Our number one priority has been and continues to be the welfare of its employees and contractors. That was true prior to the event, immediately following the event and today. A number of lawsuits have been filed by some employees who have decided to pursue legal action. While we may disagree with the allegations in those actions, we certainly respect their rights under the legal process. We are working with the court and plaintiff's counsel to create a fair process. As part of that effort, all parties agreed to the entry of a consent order providing a procedure by which any party, including the plaintiffs, may request confidential treatment of documents which contain personal or proprietary information. The consent order submitted to the court was actually drafted by the attorneys for the plaintiffs and Imperial agreed to the language in the order. As these cases move forward, it is our hope that all our employees and contractors continue to feel the support of their friends, coworkers and the community."

The families are ready to start the legal process as soon as possible, saying they just want some answers.

Latacia Johnson Bynes' father, Earl Johnson, was one of the employees killed in the refinery explosion. She says it's been a trying time for her family since the tragedy (see Children dealing with grief of refinery explosion).

"This has been seven months of misery," said Bynes.

Bynes wants to know what happened the night of February 7. That's why she and ten other families want this lawsuit to move forward.

"I want to get down to the root of what happened. How do you allow this to happen? These are lives that were running your company making sure the products are prosperous," said Bynes. "I want them to be held liable I want them to give account for Earl Johnson's death."

Bynes says it's important for her to fight for her father, but no matter what happens, nothing will bring him back or take away the pain she and her family still endure.

"I'm in this for the long run, I am going to be here till the end, I'm standing in my dad's spot. I'm his voice and that's what I'm going to be till the end," said Bynes.

A couple of months ago, OSHA issued several citations to the company, fining them nearly $9 million, the third largest fine in OSHA's history. See Imperial Sugar fined millions.

The judge is expected to make his decision within the next day or so. The first deposition is scheduled for next week.