— A St. Peter man who was badly burned when an Illinois grain elevator exploded two years ago knows he may ultimately get a big chunk of the $181 million that a federal jury awarded him and two co-workers who were seriously injured in the blast.
He just doesn’t know how much good it will do him.
John Jentz, 38, sat in his lawyers’ offices in downtown Chicago on Monday and talked about the instant two years ago when a fireball engulfed him at a ConAgra Foods Inc. grain elevator, and a jury’s decision last week that he deserves to be a millionaire because of it. And he talked about all that the money won’t be able to buy him — starting with the ability to leave his house on all but the mildest of days because his body can no longer effectively regulate its temperature.
“No amount of money will take away the pain that I suffered and continue to suffer,” said Jentz, the visible burns on his face and head only part of the 75 percent of his body that was damaged. “No amount of money will take away the stares of people that I will have to endure for the rest of my life.”
Jentz, Robert Schmidt of Hutchinson and Justin Becker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, were, according to the lawsuit, removing equipment from a concrete grain bin at ConAgra’s flour-milling site in the Mississippi River city of Chester, Ill., on April 27, 2010, when the bin exploded into flames.
After 10 hours of deliberations, the jury decided the three should split evenly $100 million in punitive damages.
The jury also decided Jentz should receive another $41.5 million in compensatory damages,with $34 million going to Becker and $2.9 to Schmidt. Jentz was awarded another $1 million from Westside Salvage Inc., ConAgra’s co-defendant.
During the trial, their attorneys argued that not only had the bin not been properly cleaned in nearly two decades, but that for weeks the company had been warned that the bin could explode at any moment — warnings it did not act upon or even share with the three victims and other workers.
Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra, one of the nation’s largest food companies, has vowed to appeal the outcome, insisting in a statement that the company does not “believe our actions caused the injuries.”
Jentz said he was going down some stairs to retrieve some tools at the bin before what he said he was told would be a routine inspection of the bin when he heard “a loud bang, and then I heard the sucking of the air and then the fire ball hit me.”
A short distance away in a lift inside of the elevator, Robert Schmidt said he heard what sounded like a sledge hammer hitting sheet metal. He said he didn’t think much of it. But then when he heard a second and a third bang, and the sounds were getting closer, he understood he was hearing an explosion.
He said he knelt down, “started praying,” and put his jacket over his head as the fireball shot up toward him. “I could feel I was on fire (and) I started patting out the flames.”
Schmidt said he still experiences pain in his hands and part of his face, but he is able to work.
Jentz, in talking about what that means, went back and forth between the words that a man who has spent his life working with his hands might use and the kinds of phrases that come from doctors who have explained to him the extent of his injuries.
“I don’t sweat,” he said, a reference to what his lawyers say is his body’s inability to regulate its temperature after the explosion. “I have to stay in a controlled environment.”
Robert Clifford, one of his lawyers, suggested Jentz’s words don’t begin to speak to the limitations that his client must deal with the rest of his life.
Doctors have told Jentz not to lift any more than 10 pounds — a restriction that not only rules out any kind of manual labor but means he can’t do something as simple as carry a bag of groceries or pull a turkey out of the oven.
Another lawyer, Kevin Durkin, added that vocational experts have suggested Jentz might be able to hold a desk job. “The only problem is, he’s lost sensation in his hands so he can’t work a keyboard,” he said.
“He’s trapped in his house,” Clifford added.
Jentz’s father Bill told The Free Press in 2010 that his son was given almost no chance of living through the first week after the explosion.
In the weeks afterward, Jentz had 10 surgeries to repair and graft skin. In all he has had 40 medical procedures and incurred millions of dollars in hospital bills.
Free Press Staff added to this report.