Just as Mars Petcare was winding down operations at its local plant, eight former employees have filed a lawsuit against the company alleging exposure to a fumigant they claim has stricken them with occupational diseases. They say the fumigant — phosphine gas — caused injuries to their eyes, lungs, respiratory system and internal organs.
They allege the fumigant was not cleared from railcars entering the plant west of Joplin at 1983 State Line Road.
Dennis Egan, with the Popham Law Firm, Kansas City, representing the plaintiffs, said Monday he could not comment on details of the lawsuit, which accuses the company of workplace negligence and carelessness.
“What we say in there we intend to prove,’’ he said.
The suit seeks actual and punitive damages.
Julie Lawless, spokeswoman for the recently-closed plant, said in a statement that Mars Petcare is working closely with representatives from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an independent third party to investigate the claim.
“Both OSHA and third-party testing results confirm our phosphine levels to be well within OSHA guideline standards,’’ she said. “We remain confident that our site practices continue to ensure the health and safety of our associates.’’
Mars announced in June its plans to close the plant, laying off 121 workers, with all production to cease in September and the final closing date set for Nov. 1. The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 23 in Jasper County Circuit Court. No trial date has been set.
The suit names three defendants. In addition to Mars Petcare, they are the J.C. Ehrlich Co., Wyomissing, Pa., doing business as Presto-X, which provided fumigation for the railroad cars that provided organic products to the Mars petfood plant; and Frank Vasquez, safety coordinator for the Mars plant in Joplin.
According to the lawsuit, Vasquez failed to follow protocol in determining if there were unsafe levels of the gas in the plant. Presto-X, the lawsuit alleges, allowed dangerous levels of phosphine gas to be delivered in railcars that entered the plant. The railcars were not cleared of the fumigants containing the gas before turning those cars over to Mars.
The plaintiffs are Lonnie Boyd, Scott Gordon and Buddy Zimmerman, all of Baxter Springs, Kan.; Bill Anderson and Tracy Milton, both of Galena, Kan.; Carol Clark and Mark Cravener, both of Joplin, and Scott Whittington, Neosho.
The plaintiffs allege they have sustained permanent injuries from the exposure.
Plaintiffs worked in the area of the plant where grain, bonemeal and other organic materials were delivered and unloaded into the plant.
Lawless said a plaintiff also has alleged that petfood products manufactured at the plant contain phosphine.
Said Lawless: “Our products are tested by various state and federal agencies for phosphine. We have had no reports that any of our products have been found to contain phosphine.’’