Grain Operator Austin Clubb surveys corn inside the Homestead Grain Facility at Amana Farms near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. John Poole/NPR
An Illinois jury has returned a record verdict of nearly $17 million in the deaths of two teenagers and the traumatic entrapment of a third worker in a grain bin in 2010, NPR’s Howard Berkes reports.
The incident was featured in an investigative series by Howard and the Center for Public Integrity. There’s also an interactive database about the series here.
As Howard tells the NPR Newscast, in July 2010, “teenagers Wyatt Whitebread and Alex Pacas, and 20-year-old Will Piper were sent into an Illinois grain bin to unclog corn — but without training and safety gear and in violation of federal regulations.”
What happened to them is horrifying, as Howard previously reported:
“The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to ‘walk down the grain,’ or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin.
“The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface.
“Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.”
“NPR and the Center for Public Integrity,” Howard adds, “documented hundreds of similar cases in which workers drowned in grain.” Expanding federal regulation of such facilities, however, has drawn “stiff resistance,” as he’s also previously reported.
In such cases, Howard says, criminal charges are rare. But he reports that the jury in Carroll County, Ill., “says the deaths of Whitebread and Pacas, and the six-hour entrapment of Piper, deserved damage the awards of nearly $17 million. The verdict against Consolidated Grain and Barge follows a settlement last year with a group of farmers also managing the bin.”
The Chicago Tribune says the families of the two teens who died were each awarded $8 million. Piper, who survived, was awarded $875,000.
“The mothers of Pacas and Whitebread wiped away tears as lawyers delivered closing arguments Wednesday,” the Tribune writes.
According to the Tribune, the jury’s award is a record for Carroll County: “The previous record[s] being a $220,000 verdict in 1989 and a $1.1 million settlement in 2005, according to plaintiffs attorneys.”