Published: Sunday, September 2, 2012
By Brian Lawson, The Huntsville Times

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Lawsuits filed by the families of two men killed in a May 2010 explosion at Redstone Arsenal, slowed by questions of federal or state jurisdiction, can now move forward in Madison Court, federal courts have ruled.

A federal judge last week rejected requests by some defendants to make federal court the venue for the lawsuits by the widows of Jerry A. Grimes, 58, of Hartselle, and James R. Hawke, 53, of Hazel Green.

The two lawsuits both list more than a dozen defendants, including Indiana-based U.S. Centrifuge, seller of a centrifuge in use at the time of the explosion.

The Grimes lawsuit also includes the company that employed the two men, Amtec Corp., but the Hawke lawsuit does not.

The explosion took place at the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center's Building 7352 on the arsenal on the morning of May 5, 2010. The two men were working on a new process to separate ammonium perchlorate - an oxidizer used in solid rocket propellant - from other elements in missile fuel contained in old rocket motors.

Harvey Morris, a Huntsville attorney representing Judy Hawke, said her lawsuit is essentially a products liability claim against the centrifuge seller, maker and related personnel. The lawsuit alleges the U.S. Centrifuge defendants told James Hawke they had a suitable product for separating the ammonium perchlorate and represented that it was "explosion-proof quality." Company representatives instructed the Amtec employees on how to operate the decanter centrifuge and installed it, the lawsuit alleges.

The decanter centrifuge had a catastrophic failure that caused a violent explosion and fire, the Hawke lawsuit argues, and he suffered burns over 98 percent of his body and he died 11 hours after the explosion.

The Grimes lawsuit argues the design of the centrifuge, its sale to Amtec, the recommendation for its use, the training on its use and other steps were negligent. Grimes also died from burns suffered in the explosion.

A Redstone Arsenal investigation and an Occupational Health and Safety Administration probe both faulted Amtec. OSHA, which has recommended a $134,000 fine, said the company did not verify the suitability of the equipment and operated the system near the centrifuge, not in a remote location. The Redstone investigation also said the work should have been done remotely, not with workers nearby.

Amtec has strongly disputed the findings and has filed its own lawsuit against U.S. Centrifuge, Centriquip Ltd., and Ashbrook Simon-Hartley - which sells separation technologies, and related employees.

Buddy Brown, a Mobile-based attorney representing Carolyn Grimes, said the federal court decision last week rejecting the request by some defendants to have the case heard in federal court, rather than state court, should allow the case to forward more quickly.

The defendants - not including Amtec, which wants its lawsuit heard in state court as well - had argued because the explosion occurred on a federal installation, federal court was the proper venue. But as in the June ruling in the Hawke case, the judges found that federal courts share jurisdiction with state courts on personal injury cases and it is not improper for a state court to hear such cases, even if the injury occurred on federal property.

Brown said the case has largely been on hold while the jurisdiction question was being sorted out and they still face the challenge of locating the various defendants - who are in Indiana and other locations - to begin the discovery process.

Huntsville attorney Rod Steakley, who represents Amtec, said they are waiting to hear if the federal court will allow Amtec's lawsuit to be heard in state court as well.

Times staff writer Ken Kesner contributed to this story.