Jacobs Eng'g Grp. Inc. v. Conagra Foods, Inc., S-16-896

Citation301 Neb. 38,917 N.W.2d 435
Decision Date14 September 2018
Docket NumberNo. S-16-896,S-16-896
Parties JACOBS ENGINEERING GROUP INC., appellee, v. CONAGRA FOODS, INC., appellant.
CourtSupreme Court of Nebraska

Christopher Landau, P.C., of Kirkland & Ellis, L.L.P., William F. Hargens and Lauren R. Goodman, of McGrath, North, Mullin & Kratz, P.C., L.L.O., Omaha, and on brief, Jeremy M. Feigenbaum, for appellant.

Stephen B. Kinnaird and Sarah G. Besnoff, of Paul Hastings, L.L.P., Gilbert S. Keteltas, Robert G. Abrams, and Thomas E. Hogan, of Baker Hostetler, L.L.P., and Shawn D. Renner and Andre R. Barry, of Cline, Williams, Wright, Johnson & Oldfather, L.L.P., Lincoln, for appellee.

Heavican, C.J., Miller-Lerman, Cassel, Stacy, Kelch, and Funke, JJ.

Funke, J.

This case arises out of an explosion at a ConAgra Foods, Inc. (ConAgra), plant in Garner, North Carolina, which killed 3 ConAgra employees and injured more than 60 others. When dozens of employees sued Jacobs Engineering Group Inc. (Jacobs), Jacobs sought contractual indemnification from ConAgra, but ConAgra declined, and Jacobs defended against and settled the claims.

Jacobs sued ConAgra for indemnification in the district court for Douglas County. Following a 4-week trial, the jury awarded Jacobs the full amount of the settlement payments, $108.9 million, and the court entered judgment on the verdict. We affirm.


ConAgra, a food manufacturer, contracted with Jacobs, an engineering firm, in 2007 to provide engineering services. Jacobs' work under the contract was limited to work requested and approved by ConAgra in work orders. Section 10 of the parties' engineering agreement contained mutual indemnification provisions which provided that each party indemnify the other for "claims, losses, costs, penalties, damages and/or expenses" to the extent caused by the indemnifying party’s negligence or the negligence of others under that party’s control. Section 10 provided the following relevant indemnification provisions:

10.1 [Jacobs] shall indemnify ... ConAgra ... against each and every claim, loss, cost, penalty, damage, or expense ... suffered or incurred by any third parties, employees of ConAgra and employees of [Jacobs]. [Jacobs'] obligations hereunder shall be limited to the extent caused by the negligent acts, errors or omissions of [Jacobs], or anyone directly or indirectly employed by [Jacobs] or for whose acts [Jacobs] is otherwise liable....
10.2 [Jacobs'] liability, however arising by reason of the performance of the services, is specifically limited as provided herein and ConAgra will indemnify and release [Jacobs] against all other claims, losses, costs, penalties, damages and/or expenses to the extent caused by the negligence of ConAgra and/or others under its control[.]

In 2008, ConAgra planned to update the Garner plant’s water heating system. ConAgra rejected Jacobs' proposal for the project as too expensive, but retained Jacobs to provide limited management and engineering support. Jacobs designated an onsite project manager, Donald Pottner, to assist with the project.


ConAgra hired Energy Systems Analysts (ESA), a high-efficiency water heater contractor, to design and install a 5-million Btu gas-fired water heater. ConAgra had previously engaged ESA to supply gas heat systems to plants in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and ConAgra had not experienced any safety issues with ESA.

ConAgra contractually imposed safety requirements on ESA’s work on the project. The contract required ESA to "abide by safety ... rules at all times while on company property." ConAgra personnel were required to bring "[a]pparent violations" of the "Contractor Work Rules" "or unacceptable industry work practices ... to the attention of the contractor’s representative for prompt correction."

The contractor work rules required "practices differing from [ConAgra] policy ... to be reviewed by [ConAgra] before the implementation." The work rules placed responsibility for correction of "unacceptable conditions" on the " ‘controlling employer,’ that is, the one in the best position to correct the situation or ensure its correction." ConAgra’s management was required to report "[a]ny safety discrepancy observed ... to the appropriate Contractor representative for immediate correction" and to suspend work "immediately" in the case of danger until "safety concern(s) have been corrected, to the satisfaction of the Company."

The contractor work rules made ConAgra responsible for ensuring that ESA prepared a "Safe Plan of Action" (SPA) for its commissioning of the water heater to identify risks and outline each step of the process in order to complete the work safely. ConAgra also had a "Fire Prevention Plan" which required "special care and handling" requirements for flammable gases that "pose a risk of catastrophic explosion if ignited." The fire prevention plan applied to all ConAgra facilities and set "procedures for controlling the hazards," required identification of "potential ignition sources," and only permitted the use or handling of natural gas "where vapors are prevented from reaching ignition sources."


ConAgra employee, Timothy Yost, was the engineering manager and supervisor at the Garner plant. ConAgra designated Yost as the individual responsible for the safety of all plant employees during the commissioning of the water heater. Yost was responsible for ensuring that ESA’s plans complied with ConAgra standards and the contractor work rules. ConAgra’s utility maintenance supervisor, John Puff, led the Garner plant’s utilities department and was responsible for its natural gas facilities.

ESA staff testified about the amount of control ConAgra exercised over the installation of the water heater. ESA’s corporate designee testified that ConAgra had the final say on the project and controlled the schedule. He stated that Yost and Puff "were the decision-makers when it came to anything, even ... when we were on site. If there was something that they didn't like, we'd obviously have to change it." He admitted that ConAgra did not provide directions of how the gas delivery system should be assembled.

On June 3, 2009, ESA provided its written plan for commissioning the water heater, which Yost and Puff reviewed and found acceptable. On June 4, Pottner left the plant on a planned medical leave and was not expected to return, and he ultimately was not present during the commissioning of the water heater. ConAgra confirmed its personnel would supervise the commissioning and that Jacobs' services were not needed.

Puff was responsible for determining the procedure to connect the new equipment to the plant’s gas supply referred to as the "line-break" procedure. The written procedure required opening valves to purge gaslines at both the boiler and the hot water tank. The purpose of the purge was to remove any remaining mixture of air and natural gas in the line prior to firing the hot water heater. ConAgra identified explosion as a risk and specified completion of the line-break procedure as the method to control that risk.

On June 4, 2009, as part of the line-break procedure, Puff instructed the crew to purge the line to the boiler with a hose leading outside, but he failed to provide the instruction to purge the line to the hot water tank. Puff stated that "[w]e just didn't get to it." Yost admitted the line to the hot water tank should have been purged before startup to prevent an explosive mixture.

On June 5, 2009, at the direction of Yost, a ConAgra senior safety specialist inspected the pumproom where the new water heater was located. The report documented "[e]xposed wires" as possible ignition source hazards.

Curt Poppe, an ESA employee, was assigned to commission the water heater. On June 9, 2009, Poppe arrived at the Garner plant and met with Yost to discuss the commission plan. Poppe’s commissioning plan did not include purging air from the lines, and Puff did not provide the line-break procedure to Poppe. Yost and Puff did not train Poppe in ConAgra’s contractor work rules or ensure that Poppe was certified as trained. In addition, no SPA was prepared for the project. ConAgra admitted that had an SPA been implemented, the explosion may have been prevented.

ConAgra’s policy and practice included supervising the work of contractors, and the utilities department did not allow contractors to work on utilities unsupervised. Puff assigned a ConAgra employee, Ethner "Buddy" Roberson, to supervise Poppe during commissioning. Roberson worked with Poppe throughout the morning and, with Puff’s knowledge, brought unrated temporary lighting into the room. Roberson had not reviewed the fire prevention plan, was not aware that combustibles should not be released into a room with ignition sources, and did not know whether the lighting he strung in the pumproom was safe for a flammable atmosphere.

When Poppe began the commission process, he had difficulty lighting the water heater. Over the next 3 ½ hours, Poppe repeatedly cracked the valve on the ?-inch pilotline and placed a gas meter in front of the line as he released small streams of gas into the room. Poppe said he was " ‘bleeding the line.’ " He attempted to light the water heater 32 times.

Multiple ConAgra employees, including management, witnessed Poppe release gas into the room and were concerned about the presence of gas. A ConAgra utilities department employee smelled "[t]oo much gas" in the room and felt he was "in danger." He reported Poppe’s unusual actions to Puff, who reported them to Yost.

Yost, and later Puff, went into the room and smelled gas. Puff admitted he did not tell Poppe that the line had not been purged, even after Puff realized Poppe was struggling to light the heater.

Puff was trained to purge lines outside; he had purged one of the lines outside on June 4, 2009. Puff "started smelling a lot of gas" and thought "pure...

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