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Widow files lawsuit in sugar refinery blast

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POSTED: May 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SAVANNAH -- A Hinesville woman, the widow of a worker killed in a devastating sugar refinery explosion, is suing the plant's owner, accusing the company of negligence by failing to clean up combustible dust that caused the blast.
Shelathia Harvey, 31, of Hinesville was among 13 refinery workers killed by the Feb. 7 explosion and fire. His wife, Lashunda Harvey, is seeking to recoup unspecified damages in her lawsuit against Savannah Foods and Industries Inc., a subsidiary of Texas-based Imperial Sugar Co.
The lawsuit says accumulation of sugar dust inside the plant was so severe that "hand prints and footprints were clearly visible" on floors and walls.
"We think it was negligence that caused my client's husband to die," Mark Tate, Harvey's attorney, said Wednesday. "Savannah Foods and Industries allowed to exist an unreasonable level of combustible sugar dust, which they knew from their experience was a hazard and would explode given certain conditions."
Tate filed the lawsuit Monday in Chatham County State Court. He said Harvey sued Savannah Foods, rather than parent company Imperial Sugar, because ownership of the refinery buildings and property are in the subsidiary's name.
Imperial Sugar acquired Savannah Foods, the producer of the Dixie Crystals brand, in 1997.
The lawsuit also seeks damages from Stokes Contracting, a Savannah-based company hired to clean up dust at the refinery. The suit says Stokes "had a contractual duty to maintain safe dust levels" at the refinery in Port Wentworth, a small city seven miles northwest of Savannah.
Attorneys for Savannah Foods and Stokes Contracting did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Stokes Contracting is also being sued by refinery employee Raquel Islas, who suffered burns to her arms in the explosion and says the company failed to clean up the sugar dust. She filed her suit in March.
Investigators determined the February explosion was caused by sugar dust igniting like gunpowder. The blast originated in a basement area where conveyor belts were used to transport sugar from three giant storage silos to a nearby packaging area.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Chemical Safety Board are still investigating.
The bodies of eight workers, including Shelathia Harvey, were found inside the plant. Five others died later from severe burns.
The blast destroyed the refinery's packaging area and severely damaged its storage silos. Imperial Sugar plans to resume refining raw sugar there by the end of the year and finish rebuilding damaged areas by spring 2009.
 

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