Ill. firefighter files lawsuit claiming permanent disability from April ammonia spill
The lawsuit says Ryan Costantino has incurred medical bills as a result of the spill and will continue to do so because of a 'severe and permanent disability'
By Emily K. Coleman
Lake County News-Sun, Ill.
WAUKEGAN, Ill. — A 23-year-old Newport Township firefighter is the latest to file a lawsuit in connection to the Beach Park anhydrous ammonia spill in April that sent more than 40 people to the hospital, his attorney said.
Ryan Costantino filed the lawsuit in Lake County Circuit Court Tuesday, the fourth to be filed against the driver of the tractor that pulled tanks of the fertilizer along Green Bay Road, where the ammonia escaped. The driver’s employer was also named as a plaintiff.
The lawsuit, which seeks the jurisdictional minimum of $50,000 plus attorney fees, accuses the driver and John Kevek Farms Inc. of Pleasant Prairie of failing to properly train their employees and take the steps necessary to prevent the leak.
The attorney for John Kevek Farms declined to comment Friday on the lawsuits.
The incident occurred about 4:30 a.m. April 25 when a tractor pulling two 1,000-gallon nurse tanks south down North Green Bay Road at West Clarendon Road released about 750 gallons of anhydrous ammonia into the air, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board released in early June.
The driver told investigators that while traveling between farm fields, he heard a “puff” sound, and when he turned around to check the nurse tanks, saw a gas cloud, according to the preliminary report.
The initial 911 call reported an automobile fire with an injured person in the street, which meant initial responders were unaware of the gas and were immediately exposed, according to the report.
That was the case for Costantino, the plaintiff in the latest lawsuit and a firefighter with the Newport Township Fire Protection District, according to his complaint.
When Costantino arrived at the scene, he noticed smell of ammonia and immediately told his fellow responders to put their Hazmat gear on, said his attorney, Jeffrey Thut.
Despite taking these steps within minutes of arriving and not getting closer than a half a mile from the spill, Thut said Costantino was still exposed and spent several days at the hospital.
The lawsuit says Costantino has incurred medical bills as a result of the spill and will continue to do so because of a “severe and permanent disability,” which Thut said was breathing issues akin to asthma for the rest of his life.
Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas that can cause breathing difficulties, burns and blisters, and is fatal if breathed in high concentrations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The National Transportation Safety Board report pointed to open shut-off valves and a disconnected hose found by the regional hazardous material team from the Lake Forest Fire Department that ultimately stopped the leak.
An estimated 80% of all anhydrous ammonia leaks are the result of improper procedure, lack of training or knowledge, or failure to follow proper safety precautions, according to Costantino’s lawsuit.
More than 40 people, including 11 first responders, were taken to the hospital as a result of the leak. The driver of the tracker was not injured.
A one-mile area was also cordoned off where residents were told by authorities to shelter in place or were evacuated.
No criminal charges are pending against the driver, Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Nerheim said late last month, adding that "while the conduct of the worker may have been negligent, it didn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct.”
The first of four lawsuits filed in connection to the incident represents a Beach Park firefighter, a Lake County sheriff’s deputy and three residents.
One of the residents suing is Veda Reed, who told the News-Sun she was driving along Green Bay Road when "all of sudden, my chest started feeling bad.” Her chest started burning and she couldn’t breathe.
Two additional lawsuits followed a few days later, including one filed by Jimmie Boatman, who drove through the area twice that morning as part of his work, said his attorney Thomas Hood.
Boatman was taken to Vista Medical Center in Waukegan where he spent a few days, Hood said. He was released and then later readmitted to another hospital after coughing up blood and experiencing other lung issues.
“It seems like it could be a permanent condition,” Hood said, noting that Boatman is still having problems nearly three months after the incident.
The liability seems clear and the damage severe to Hood. He said the question will be whether defendants will be able to afford to compensate all those harmed.
©2019 the Lake County News-Sun (Lake County, Ill.)