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Three Burned Workers Awarded $17.2 Million in Lawsuit

Reporter Eldon Knoche in Milwaukee and correspondent
Mike Kinzel in Manitowoc contributed to this story
Milwaukee Sentinel

Three construction workers who were severely burned in a flash charcoal fire while rebuilding an incinerator were awarded $17.2 million Friday in a verdict believed to be the largest for actual damages ever awarded in Wisconsin.

The verdict against Red Arrow Products Co. Inc., a Manitowoc manufacturer of liquid wood-smoke flavors, ended a nine-week trial that featured more than 2,400 exhibits.

It was the longest trial in Manitowoc County history, Circuit Judge Allan Deehr said.

The verdict will be reduced by $3 million because the jury found the supplier of the space heater that ignited the charcoal liable for that portion of the total.

The jury did not know the supplier, William Shaus & Sons of Manitowoc, already had agreed to settle its share of the case for $2 million.

Added to the award will be $4.6 million in interest and court costs, said Patrick O. Dunphy and William M. Cannon, the workers' Milwaukee attorneys.

That means the three will receive a total of $20.8 million.

"My clients had their day in court and they won a terrific result," Dunphy said.

The men were working for Hamann Construction Co. of Manitowoc, which was rebuilding Red Arrow's incinerator Feb. 27, 1986.

Charcoal dust in a feed pipe leading to the incinerator fell out of the pipe. An estimated 100 pounds or more of the dust came into contact with a propane gas space heater and ignited, Dunphy said.

Plaintiffs in the case were:

· Thomas Theisen, 27, of Manitowoc, who suffered burns over 86% of his body. He has had 145 skin grafts and became deaf as a result of antibiotics used to fight burn infections. He stands to receive about $15 million.

· David Kuehnl, 48, of Manitowoc, who was burned over 64% of his body. He would get $3.7 million.

· Michael Dietrich, 32, of Valders, who had burns over 50% of his body. He would get about $2.1 million.

The men alleged Red Arrow was negligent in failing to seal off the pipe and failing to clean the charcoal dust out of it.

Testimony indicated Red Arrow had plugged the bottom of the 3 foot long, 6-inch-diameter pipe with a rag to keep the dust out of the work area, Dunphy said.

Ten days after the construction had started, the men, not knowing the pipe contained dust, removed the end of it at Red Arrow's direction, Dunphy said.