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Federal jury awards $30 million to Colorado oil & gas worker who lost leg in explosion

Despite the decision, Steve Straughen's payout is limited under a Colorado law. He has now joined a group that's fighting to change that law.
Steve Straughen
Posted at 10:42 PM, Apr 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-18 08:06:40-04

DENVER — A federal jury in Colorado recently awarded $30 million to Steve Straughen, an oil and gas worker who lost part of his leg in a 2019 explosion in northern Colorado. However, due to a Colorado law that limits non-economic damages, he will only receive a fraction of that.

“When you lose your leg and have your pelvis ripped in half and there’s things you can’t do for the rest of your life, I mean, this cap shouldn’t apply to people like that,” said Kurt Zaner, Straughen’s attorney.

In late 2019, a fracking tank exploded at Straughen’s job site on an oil rig between Greeley and Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“These frack tanks, they’re like the size of a mobile home. And they had holes in them,” Zaner said. “They were defective. And that led to an explosive mixture.”

“My last memory before the explosion is I had one of my operators close the valve on one of the vent lines for the oil tank next to me,” Straughen said. “And he closed it. And then by the time I turned my head back, boom! Explosion in my face. I remember seeing the flash. My next memory is I was up in the air. I could see the Denver skyline. I could see a car parked on the other side of one of the walls on location. And then I remember seeing the ground and thinking, 'Don’t hit your head. Land on your feet.'”

“The tank company had one and only one job, and that was to deliver a vapor-tight tank,” Zaner said. “And they didn’t do that.”

Steve Straughen

Non-economic damages, including wrongful death and pain and suffering, are capped in Colorado at a little more than $600,000.

The jury's $30 million decision includes:

  • $10 million for past and future medical bills and wage loss
  • $5 million for physical impairment and disfigurement
  • $15 million for pain and suffering

Colorado law, however, caps the $15 million for pain and suffering. A group called Coloradans for Accountability is hoping to change that with a ballot initiative. The group wants Colorado voters to eliminate the cap this November so future victims of negligence aren't shortchanged like Straughen.
“(The jury) did their job,” Zaner said. “That part’s great. As far as the law itself, that’s a tough break.”

It's a tough break that has inspired a movement to change a law that was set in the 1980s.

“The more we can do to get this law right for the next guy, the better,” Straughen said.

“The legislative fix can’t help Steve in this situation,” Zaner said. “But it can help others going forward. And the law needs to change.”

Federal jury awards $30 million to Colorado oil & gas worker who lost leg in explosion

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