Gainesville poultry plant sues for insurance money in deadly nitrogen leak

Foundation Food Group, where six people were killed and several others were injured after a liquid nitrogen line ruptured in Gainesville on January 28, 2021. The incident happened in the morning at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant on Memorial Park Drive. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Foundation Food Group, where six people were killed and several others were injured after a liquid nitrogen line ruptured in Gainesville on January 28, 2021. The incident happened in the morning at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant on Memorial Park Drive. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Owners of the Gainesville poultry plant where a nitrogen leak killed six workers are suing to collect insurance for losses in the tragedy.

Foundation Food Group complains that Selective Way Insurance Co. has refused to pay out more than $2 million for the Jan. 28 leak.

Selective Way has cited its own ongoing investigation into the situation.

The leak — caused by issues with a flash-freezer — spewed clouds of nitrogen, which can displace oxygen in the air. Six employees died of asphyxiation, others were injured, and still others were traumatized in an event that led to calls for greater safety in the notoriously perilous meatpacking industry.

The Gainesville factory has blamed the deaths on Messer Gas, a gas provider various industries including meatpacking plants. Messer Gas, meanwhile, has accused the factory of failing to implement safety protocols that it had recommended. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, however, found that Foundation Food Group and Messer could have prevented the disaster. OSHA hit them — as well as two partner companies — with a total of 59 violations and nearly $1 million in fines. The Gainesville plant faced the majority of violations and fines.

In its lawsuit, filed this month in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, Foundation Food Group complains it lost $465,711 in chicken that had to be thrown out when the plant was shut for inspections after the leak. The company says it lost another $1,247,062 in various expenses related to resuming operations weeks later.

The lawsuit seeks a jury trial.

Meanwhile, relatives of some of the workers who died are suing Messer Gas in Gwinnett County, accusing the company of negligence. Foundation Food Group isn’t named in those lawsuits, which are plodding forward with depositions. Georgia law makes it difficult for survivors to sue over workplace deaths.

Workers and labor rights advocates have accused Foundation of negligence that allegedly contributed to the Jan. 28 leak and an ammonia leak on March 11.

“During both leaks, workers heard no alarms when toxic gas — both nitrogen and ammonia — was released into the air and all 130 workers were forced to exit through a single door due to a lack of sufficient emergency doors,” aide workers wrote in a March imminent danger complaint with OSHA. “Further, these workers (weren’t) provided with any trainings or drills on what to do in the event of a toxic release of gas.”

Foundation Food Group, which has denied allegations of negligence, has wrangled with authorities since Jan. 28 about the safety of its operations, shifting blame to Messer Gas.

The Gainesville plant’s lawsuit says workers repeatedly reported problems with a freezer in the days and weeks leading up to the horror that would unfold. The system, used to flash-freeze chicken on one of the plant’s production lines, had been serviced the previous day and the day before that by Messer Gas.

On the morning of the deaths, someone at Foundation Food Group fired up the machine, waiting for another visit from Messer, according to the plant’s suit. Messer Gas disputes that one of its employees was expected that day. The leak happened after 8:30 a.m., and according to Foundation’s filings, all six workers who died were responding to the emergency. They were inside the freezer room attached to the production line or attempting to enter when the frigid cloud of nitrogen killed them.

The dead are Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, of Gainesville; Corey Alan Murphy, 35, of Clermont; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28, of Gainesville; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, of Dawsonville; Victor Vellez, 38, of Gainesville; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville.