Lawsuit admits no fault of Ellis Metals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 28, 2001

Features Editor

Although the insurance company representing Ellis Metals of Brundidge in a lawsuit resulting from a fatal accident has settled out of court, James Ellis maintains no fault on the part of his company.

A 14-car pileup on U.S. Highway 231 one mile south of Brundidge on April 2, 1998 resulted in one death and nine injuries.

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Three lawsuits were filed against Ellis Metals but settled out of court March 12 in Troy. The lawsuits claimed smoke from a fire at Ellis Metals was the cause of the accidents, Ellis said.

However, Ellis said he had no prior knowledge of the settlement and refused to admit to any fault on the part of his company.

"We left the Pike County Courthouse at 11 a.m. on March 12 knowing that we had a good case and thinking we would go to court with it," Ellis said. "When we returned to the courthouse at 1 p.m. that same day, I was told a settlement had been reached between the insurance company and the plaintiffs. I was not consulted about a settlement and told our attorney that I would not sign anything admitting fault on our part. He said such an admission was not a part of the settlement."

Ellis said he was puzzled and concerned by the settlement.

"Up until 11 a.m. our attorney told me we had a good case," Ellis said. "I don’t know why it was settled. We were fully prepared to go to court and I believe we could have won. But my greatest concern is the perception people get from a settlement. Any time there is a settlement, people assume you are guilty or, in our case, at fault.

Ellis Metals was not at fault."

Ellis maintains that fog, not smoke from a small fire at the scrap metal company, limited visibility along Highway 231 that morning and was the cause of the pileup near his company.

Ellis said he was alerted to a small fire at Ellis Metals between 3 and 4 a.m. on

April 2, 1998. He and his wife, Carol, went immediately to the site. Fog, he said, blanketed the area.

The Brundidge Volunteer Fire Department responded to the fire, which was confined to about a six square foot area, Ellis said.

"Even though you couldn’t see

three feet in front of you, the firemen didn’t

use any respiratory equipment," Ellis said. "If it had been smoke, they would have had to wear masks. Carol and I were down there and we didn’t have any trouble breathing. You can’t stand in smoke like that, but you can in fog."

In a deposition, firefighter Johnny Ross of the Brundidge Volunteer Fire Department, stated he encountered fog on the way to the fire and there was little smoke at the fire site. When the firefighters left the scene at around 5 a.m. the area was a clear as a bell, Ellis said.

"I went to my mother’s to eat breakfast and Carol was with me," he said. "We came out about 10 ’til 6 and you couldn’t see a thing for the fog."

Mike Kelsey, an employee at Ellis Metals, arrived for work around 6 a.m. and stated in a deposition a fog bank caused him to consider not turning onto Highway 231 from County Road 125. However, looking south he determined it was safe to pull onto the highway,

but he put on his flashers to drive 100 yards to the entrance to Ellis Metals.

The pileup occurred shortly after 6 a.m., Ellis said, with law enforcement and emergency personnel from surrounding areas responding.

"Not one person was admitted to the hospital for smoke inhalation and you know if there had been that much smoke, someone would have been affected," he said.

In his deposition, Ross, who also responded to the emergency call, supported Ellis’s observation.

Ross stated if there had been smoke, "everybody out there would have been hauled to the hospital for smoke inhalation. You couldn’t breathe. Smoke was that thick."

Jim Haisten, a nearby landowner, gave a deposition stating he was turkey hunting that morning about a half mile from the accident site. Haisten stated fog "was as thick as pea soup" and he got lost in an area that he has been familiar with since 1941.

"We had one person after another who stated that there was heavy fog in the area that morning," Ellis said. "Doug Carr is an environmental engineer with the air division of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. He conducted an investigation of the area and determined there was no indication of intentional open burning and he did not recommend any fines against us."

Ellis said the fire that morning started in a scrap pile where a torch had been used to cut metal.

"A scrap pile is not always just metal and there could have been some flammable materials in there," he said. "But the fire didn’t cover a big area and there was very little smoke.

It was not the cause of the accident on the highway about a quarter mile away."

Ellis said he regrets the accident and feels for those who lost a loved one and for those who were injured.

"But Ellis Metals is not to blame," he said. "The case was settled out of court, but that was the decision of the insurance company. We wanted to go to court. We wanted our side to be heard so people would know that Ellis Metals was not at fault."