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Jury awards $181m to 3 in explosion

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. - A federal jury decided against ConAgra Foods Inc. and a subcontractor Friday in awarding about $181 million in damages to three workers severely injured in a 2010 explosion at a southern Illinois grain elevator.

ConAgra, based in Omaha, Neb., and one of the nation’s largest food companies, swiftly pledged to appeal the outcome of the monthlong trial, calling the accident tragic but insisting “we do not believe our actions caused the injuries.’’

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“While we have insurance policies that we believe cover the full amount of this judgment, we will further defend our actions and practices as this case continues,’’ ConAgra said.

Jurors, after 10 hours of deliberation, assessed a total of $100 million in punitive damages that will be split among victims John Jentz of St. Peter, Minn., Robert Schmidt of Hutchinson, Minn., and Justin Becker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Compensatory damages include $41.5 million to Jentz, about $34 million to Becker, and $2.9 million to Schmidt. Jentz was awarded $1 million in additional punitive damages by Westside Salvage Inc., ConAgra’s co-defendant.

Any such payouts would hinge on the outcome of ConAgra’s planned appeal, which could take months and more likely years to resolve. Crediting the jury as “very deliberative,’’ an attorney for Becker appeared undisturbed by the prospect of a protracted appeal.

“We’re ready, willing, and able to fight it as high as we need to take it, and we’re confident this verdict will be affirmed,’’ attorney Marc Taxman said.

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