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Clay County jury sides with fired whistleblower

A Clay County jury awarded $540,000 to a former sandblaster who said his company fired him for complaining about dangerous work conditions.

Plaintiff Matthew J. Curtis won $40,000 for lost wages and emotional distress and $500,000 in punitive damages against LPG Ventures Inc. The 12-member jury took four hours to reach its 9-3 decision.

LPG hired Curtis in June 2016 to clean steel pressure vessels by entering and sandblasting them. In July 2016, he and a coworker went to a job where he smelled toxic anhydrous ammonia. He told a supervisor that a protective hood failed to keep out the fumes and the work was dangerous. He claimed the supervisor told him the problems would be fixed, but they were not.

Subsequently, after a contentious meeting with LPG company president John Baanders about the safety conditions, he was fired. Curtis filed suit in Clay County Circuit Court in October 2017 claiming a single count of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

“Matthew Curtis stood up not only for himself, but for every worker in Clay County,” his attorney Ryan L. McClelland said. “We are proud of him.”

McClelland said Curtis’s co-worker at the time, Kyle Huxtable, provided some of the most compelling testimony. Huxtable, who is in the U.S. Army and testified remotely from a military base, supported the plaintiff’s account of the problematic work conditions and the company’s response, McClelland said.

LPG will appeal after filing all necessary post-verdict motions, said defense attorney Jason Leiker of Levy Craig Law Firm in Kansas City.

LPG fired Curtis for being “insubordinate and disrespectful,” according to Leiker and a defense court filing. By contrast, Huxtable, who was in the same meeting, said Curtis discussed solutions, “behaved appropriately at the meeting and was not disrespectful,” McClelland said.

Leiker said he believes the burden on the plaintiffs to prove damages was wrongly lowered in the jury instructions and the jury received improper instructions.

$540,000 Verdict

Wrongful termination

Venue: Clay County Circuit Court

Case Number: 17CY-CV09794/Sept. 15, 2018

Judge: Janet Sutton

Pretrial demand: $75,000

Pretrial offer: $15,000

Caption: Matthew J. Curtis v. LPG Ventures Inc.

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Ryan L. McClelland and Michael J. Rahmberg, McClelland Law Firm, Liberty; Kevin Baldwin and Eric Vernon, Baldwin & Vernon, Liberty

Defendant’s Attorneys: Jason Leiker and Ann Wolf, Levy Craig Law Firm, Kansas City