NEW ULM - The Minnesota Court of Appeals last week upheld a December 2011 Brown County District Court decision that a service company wasn't financially liable for a fire that heavily damaged the Associated Milk Producer's Inc. (AMPI) butter plant on Dec. 1, 2004.
On Sept. 17, 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier ruling by former Brown County District Court Judge John Rodenberg that Compressor Services, which provided maintenance on one of two compressor systems in the plant area where the fire began, could not be legally linked to the fire.
The appeals court ruled that AMPI failed to produce sufficient evidence that Compressor Services negligence was the proximate cause of the fire's origin or its unreasonable spread, or that it had a duty to warn AMPI about potential hazards, according to court documents.
The fire on Dec. 1, 2004 began in AMPI's air compressor mezzanine. In a lawsuit that followed, AMPI alleged that service company negligently serviced one of its compressors, the Sullair compressor, and that it was the proximate and concurrent cause of the origin and unreasonable spread of the fire. AMPI also alleged that the service company had a duty to warn or instruct AMPI about separator fires, oil leaks, and the use of non-recommended seals to repair the Sullair compressor.
Several months prior to the fire, Compressor Services serviced the Sullair compressor several times after AMPI requested service due to oil leaks. The compressor was subject to leaks, and Sullair Corp. had distributed bulletins with oil leak repair recommendations but the service firm did not make them available to AMPI or repair technicians, who did not follow the recommendations when repairing the compressor, according to court documents.
The night of the fire, AMPI maintenance workers noticed the Sullair compressor had very low lubricating oil and oil was pooling around it. Workers added several gallons of oil and planned to call the service company the next day for service.
The plant required constant use of air compressors to run machinery, but the Sullair compressor had to be shut down to add oil. At that time, an Atlas Copco compressor, on standby and not as powerful as the Sullair compressor, provided all plant air compression. Workers noticed a power decrease that resulted in automatic shutdown of some manufacturing equipment.
About an hour after the Sullair compressor was shutdown, it went back online. An hour later, there was an explosion on the compressor mezzanine, and flames shot out of the Atlas Copco compressor. The fire quickly spread from the compressor mezzanine, destroying much of the plant.
AMPI sued Atlas Copco, American Air Products Inc., and Sullair Corp., alleging negligence and products liability, AMPI settled its claims with all parties except Compressor Services, before filing the appeal.
Experts examined various theories of fire origin and spread, but agreed that the fire originated in the Atlas Copco compressor's separation element that it was not properly grounded, lacked temperature and pressure sensors that could have alerted AMPI of the problem.
Experts also agreed that the Atlas Copco compressor was surrounded by combustible polyurethane foam that helped spread the fire to other combustible materials like walls, ceiling tiles and cardboard boxes.
The appeals court, which did not include Rodenberg, who was appointed to it earlier this year, ruled that AMPI would have to pay Compressor Services legal costs.
Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org