Fire Investigation Could Influence $55 Million Lawsuit
ST. CHARLES, Minn. (AP) — A state investigation into the fire that destroyed North Star Foods in St. Charles pinpointed where the blaze started, but does not answer what caused it to ignite in the first place.
The April 2009 fire forced a citywide evacuation of the southeast Minnesota town and left more than 200 people without jobs. The blaze also is the subject of a $55 million lawsuit against the manufacturer of the plant's oven burners and a consultant that recommended them.
The Winona Daily News reported Sunday that Deputy State Fire Marshal Steven Wolf's report found the fire was caused accidentally when heat built up in an oven exhaust stack and ignited combustibles in the ceiling. But Wolf did not come to a conclusion as to why that happened.
North Star has claimed in its lawsuit that burners made by Flynn Burner Corp. were "defective and unreasonably dangerous" and not suitable for the plant, despite recommendations from Marshall W. Nelson & Associates, a Milwaukee-based process heating and control engineering company, to buy and use them.
In his report, Wolf concluded that the burners did appear capable of creating more heat than the exhaust system was designed to handle, which caused heat to build up, warm the exhaust stack and ignite "caulking, wood, rubber roof membrane or Styrofoam insulation."
North Star's lawsuit alleges that a Marshall Nelson maintenance technician spent about 30 minutes the day of the fire adjusting gas and flame levels in the oven. A half hour later, North Star workers spotted flames above the oven.
Wolf wrote in his report that the technician's servicing of the burners was "significant," but he said he couldn't rule out that the fire was already smoldering when the technician did his work.
"If the flame was out of adjustment and had been burning for two hours prior to service work being done, could the service work have caused a problem, or did the service work remedy a situation that already caused a problem?" Wolf wrote. He does not answer this question in his report.
Attorneys for Flynn and Marshall Nelson argue that North Star Workers misused the burners.
"I don't view the fire marshal's report as creating any problems for our client," said Mike Hutchen, an attorney for Flynn Burner.
North Star lawyers say the report was mainly concerned with ruling out arson as a cause of the fire and that specifics are left to the parties to determine.
North Star's lawsuit has been moved from Winona County District Court to U.S. District Court, with a pretrial conference scheduled for Sept. 17 in Minneapolis.