Tornado-hit Kentucky factory sued; workers said they couldn’t leave

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FILE-In this aerial file photo, a collapsed factory is seen with workers searching for survivors, after tornadoes came through the area the previous night, in Mayfield, Ky., Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. Survivors of a tornado that leveled a Kentucky candle factory, killing eight workers, have filed a lawsuit claiming their employer demonstrated “flagrant indifference” by refusing to allow the employees to go home early. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

MAYFIELD, Ky. — Survivors of a tornado that leveled a Kentucky candle factory, killing eight workers, have filed a lawsuit claiming their employer demonstrated “flagrant indifference” by refusing to allow employees to go home early as the storm approached.

The lawsuit filed in state court late Wednesday accuses the company of violating Kentucky occupational safety and health workplace standards by keeping its staff at work despite the danger of death and injury. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages from Mayfield Consumer Products.

“It’s a straightforward claim, exactly what this statute was meant to address,” Amos Jones, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing employees, said by phone Thursday.

Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company located in the western town of Mayfield, has previously insisted that employees were free to leave anytime, and he denied that they would have faced retribution if they left the factory. Ferguson did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

The company’s CEO, Troy Propes, said in a statement Wednesday that the company was retaining “an independent expert team” to review the actions of managers and employees leading up to when the tornado struck the factory.

“We’re confident that our team leaders acted entirely appropriately and were, in fact, heroic in their efforts to shelter our employees,” Propes said. “We are hearing accounts from a few employees that our procedures were not followed. We’re going to do a thorough review of what happened.”

The lawsuit claims the factory had “up to three and half hours before the tornado hit its place of business to allow its employees to leave its worksite as safety precautions.” The factory showed “flagrant indifference to the rights” of the workers by refusing to do so, the lawsuit said.

An employee of the factory told The Associated Press on Tuesday that a supervisor threatened her with written disciplinary action if she went home early because storms were approaching.

The employee, Haley Conder, also questioned why the company did not encourage workers to go home — or at least give them a better understanding of the danger — between a first tornado siren around 6 p.m. Friday and another one around 9 p.m., shortly before the tornado hit.

The only plaintiff identified in the lawsuit is Elijah Johnson, who was working the night shift at the candle factory when the storm struck. The wording of the lawsuit says it was filed by Johnson and on behalf of “others similarly situated.” Others aren’t identified by name for “fear of reprisal,” Jones said.

The legal action was taken less than a week after the storms that began Friday night destroyed lives and property from Arkansas to Illinois and in parts of neighboring states, carving a more than 200-mile (320-kilometer) path through Kentucky alone.

More than 100 people were working on candle orders when the twister flattened the Mayfield facility. The scale of the damage initially stoked fears that scores of workers could be found dead in the rubble. The company later said many employees who survived left the site and went to homes with no phone service, adding to the confusion over who was missing.

Since then, all workers have been accounted for, according to state and local officials who have spoken to the company.

Gov. Andy Beshear has said that Kentucky’s workplace safety agency would look into the eight deaths. That kind of investigation is routine whenever workers are killed on the job.

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