The families of two teenagers who were killed after being trapped in a grain elevator in northwestern Illinois in 2010 will share a record $16 million verdict. Wyatt Whitebread, 14, and Alejandro Pacas, 19, were killed while “walking down” on the grain in the bin, a process that an attorney for the families says violates OSHA regulations. A Carroll County, Illinois jury deliberated eight hours before awarding $8 million each to the two plaintiffs’ families. The verdict is the highest ever in Carroll County, according to the Jury Verdict Reporter.
Kevin P. Durkin and Sean P. Driscoll, attorneys at Clifford Law Offices in Chicago, obtained the verdict on the families’ behalf. The two teens were working at a Consolidated Grain and Barge Company grain elevator owned by Haasbach LLC. According to Durkin, the 14-year-old Whitebread “should never have been in the bin,” and was pulled down into the grain like quicksand. Pacas and a third worker, Will Piper, jumped in to save Whitebread after he began calling for help. Pacas jumped into a sinkhole while trying to pull out Whitebread, and both were suffocated. Piper was immersed in grain up to his neck for six hours before he could be rescued. He was awarded $875,000 and was represented by Loren Golden of Golden Law Office in Elgin, IL
“These boys should not have been working in the bin in the first place,” Durkin said. He describes the teens as “outstanding young men trying to make some extra money during the summer.” Durkin says the award was “a just verdict based on the evidence.” He adds that the jury agreed with the arguments that the victims should never have been allowed to “walk down” the grain, which he describes as a process to break up chunks of grain that won’t go through the sump in the grain elevator.
Durkin says about 1,600 grain entrapments are reported each year in the U.S., and several deaths happen as a result. “Suffocation is a leading cause of death in grain storage bins,” according to OSHA’s website. “In 2010, 51 workers were engulfed by grain stored in bins, and 26 died--the highest number on record, according to a report issued by Purdue University .” Durkin says if a person has sunken into grain up to his knees, he will “never get out” without help. According to OSHA, “Moving grain acts like ‘quicksand’ and can bury a worker in seconds.” While Durkin says the younger teen shouldn’t have been allowed by the company to walk down the grain, the older Pacas should have been properly trained and harnessed.
According to the Chicago Tribune, a 2011 OSHA investigation cited the facility's owner, Haasbach, for 25 violations. Among the violations, the owner didn't train the young workers, provide safety harnesses, make sure machinery was turned off or develop an emergency action plan. A separate investigation found that Haasbach violated child labor laws by hiring workers under 18-years-old to perform hazardous jobs.