By BRAD HEM
June 3, 2008
Luis Garcia was knocked to the ground and felt pain throughout his body when BP's Texas City refinery exploded in March 2005, and the trauma continued to build over the next several days as he learned that people he'd worked with had died, he testified Tuesday.
Garcia was the first plaintiff to take the witness stand in the latest blast-related civil trial against the oil giant. Ten people and four of their spouses are suing BP for physical injuries or emotional trauma they say was caused by the explosion.
BP has admitted fault for the blast, which killed 15 people and hurt scores more, but the company disputes the extent of the plaintiffs' injuries and the amount they should be paid. They are suing for $950 million.
A pipe fitter's assistant for contractor J.E. Merit on the day of the blast, Garcia was less than 200 feet from the explosion.
"I was on my knees and hands," he told the court. "My whole left side hit the ground. My hard hat fell off, my glasses. It was just so hot. It was unreal. I didn't know if I was going to die or not."
Garcia ran with other workers away from the blast, helping another bleeding worker along the way, he said. Plaintiffs' attorney Brent Coon asked him whether it was an organized evacuation.
"It wasn't an evacuation," he said. "It was just a bunch of us running for our lives."
A few weeks later and still in pain, Garcia went to a doctor his sister recommended and was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his elbow, a bulging disc in his back and other neck and back problems.
At the same time, Garcia said he was struggling with emotional and mental problems. He had regular nightmares about dying. He tried to go back to work at another refinery but said he couldn't handle being in an environment similar to where the blast happened.
He continues to take medication for pain and to help him sleep. He said he suffers mood swings and gets sad and angry easily. Hearing talk about the blast and the emergency responders' radio communications during opening statements prompted him to go back to his therapist, he said.
"My life was just flipped upside down," he said.
On cross-examination, BP attorney Kenneth Tekell presented medical records that doctors told Garcia he was physically able to return to work as soon as two weeks after the explosion and again a month later.
Later records showed he didn't continue to complain about pain and went two years without going to see a doctor until he started meeting with lawyers. Garcia said he was getting better, and in some cases, he disagreed with doctors who said he was fine.
Tekell suggested Garcia and a second plaintiff represented by attorney Daniel Sheena followed the same pattern of visiting doctors who diagnosed them differently from other doctors.