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Man sues for $2.5 million over burn accident at American Crystal

EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- An Illinois man has sued American Crystal Sugar Co. and a construction company after he was severely burned and disfigured while he said he was trapped under an umbrella-shaped spray of scalding beet juice coming from a...

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EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- An Illinois man has sued American Crystal Sugar Co. and a construction company after he was severely burned and disfigured while he said he was trapped under an umbrella-shaped spray of scalding beet juice coming from a 25,000-gallon container.

The accident occurred on Jan. 29, 2013, while Kevin Birnbaum, who worked at the sugar company's plant in East Grand Forks, Minn., during a union lockout, was replacing a part on the container's drain pipe. Birnbaum says in the lawsuit that he had to get himself into a tight location to access the part he was replacing, and once he had hand-tightened the bolts, a scalding spray of beet juice burst from the container. Because Birnbaum was stuck in a tight spot, he was unable to quickly escape the spray, the lawsuit claims.

Birnbaum filed the lawsuit against American Crystal and Wanzek Construction of West Fargo, N.D., in Clay County District Court in Moorhead, Minn., Dec. 1 -- nearly two years after the accident -- alleging he was severely and permanently injured by second- and third-degree burns and has sustained medical expenses exceeding $2.5 million from the accident.

Birnbaum claims the two companies are responsible for "individual and joint negligence, carelessness and unlawful conduct."

Wanzek Construction was included in the lawsuit for its role in the design and manufacture of sugar beet processing machinery at the plant.

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Jeff Schweitzer, public relations manager for American Crystal, says the company, based in Moorhead, doesn't comment on ongoing litigation, and attorneys representing the company didn't return calls requesting comment.

Garth Unke, who is representing Wanzek Construction in the case, says the company has responded to the complaint, although no documents had been filed in Clay County District Court as of Dec. 3. Unke declined to comment further.

Birnbaum's complaint says the $2.5 million encompasses "past and future hospital and medical expenses, loss of earning and earning capacity, surgeries, disability, restrictions, permanent disfiguration, pain, suffering and emotional distress."

At the time of the accident, Birnbaum, of Rolling Meadows, Ill., was an employee of Strom Engineering Corp., which provided workers for American Crystal during the union lockout.

The terms of Birnbaum's employment with Strom Engineering, according to the complaint, stated that he would never become an employee of Strom's clients (such as American Crystal Sugar Co.), and therefore wouldn't be entitled to participate in any of the clients' benefit plans, which could include "disability ... accidental death and dismemberment, or medical benefits."

Birnbaum has requested a jury trial.

Following the burn accident, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry conducted an investigation that resulted in American Crystal Sugar initially receiving four citations for "serious" violations of occupational safety and health standards, three of which were related to the container that Birnbaum was working on. But two of those three container-related citations were rescinded, and the fourth citation was reduced to non-serious.

The company still had to pay $10,000 in fines and agreed to "be committed to safety by maintaining a full-time safety position to be responsible for all safety programs at their facilities," according to court documents.

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