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Federal lawsuits filed in Church's Chicken collapse

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LIVINGSTON -- The Houston law firm of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz have announced a new lawsuit stemming from an Aug. 1 incident last year when three women — Hugolina Guerrero de Garzon, Joselin Damian Gonzalez and Erica Acevedo — suffered life-threatening burns as a result of a floor collapse at Church’s Chicken in Livingston.

Texas attorneys Benny Agosto Jr. and Kelly Woods of Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz are representing Garzon and Gonzalez.

The floor beneath the workers collapsed, causing deep fryers to fall on top of them, spilling hot oil over their bodies. Both plaintiffs were rushed by life-flight to the burn intensive care unit, where they remained for months.

In the past six months, Garzon, 34, with three children and a husband, and Gonzalez, 17, have undergone numerous surgeries and continue medical treatment daily, with extensive treatment expected in the future. To date, their current medical bills have exceeded $1 million dollars.

The lawsuit was filed in Harris County against Cajun Global, LLC, Cajun Operating Company, Store Capital Corporation, Store Capital Acquisitions, LLC, Store Master Funding VIII, LLC, Triangle Capital Properties, LLC, Royal Texas, LLC, The Vertex Companies, Inc., Mohammad Hadi Rahman, and Yesenia Zumaya — the owners, operators, managers and controllers of the Church’s Chicken.

The lawsuit alleges these companies failed to maintain a safe work environment for the workers, failed to properly inspect and maintain the premises and failed to remedy a known dangerous condition.

“This is the worst case I have ever seen, with absolutely horrifying life-long injuries,” Agosto said. “We filed suit shortly after this happened. We filed in Polk County, representing Joselin and Hugolina. Erica Acevedo is with another attorney and they are in federal court in Dallas County.”

After the suit was filed in Polk County last year, it was moved to federal court in Lufkin. The reasoning, Agosto said, was that his firm sued “foreign” companies (not in this state) and sued one Texas company. However, the Texas company is wholly owned by “foreign” members (out of state).

“Because it was so recent, I was still investigating who all would be defendants and all of the facts,” Agosto said.

“Sometimes when you file a lawsuit, you do it to gather facts. Because they were forcing my moves, I decided to voluntarily withdraw from that (original) lawsuit, which was approved by the federal judge. That allows me to restart once I’ve done my homework.

“We have reports from inspectors and different companies and figured out that there was a lot more defendants and a lot more facts,” Agosto said of filing a lawsuit for the second time. “There were general managers and store managers that were aware of what was going on prior to this incident occurring. Our new lawsuit has a lot more defendants and a lot more facts.

“There are nine defendants, but they are all interrelated. There is the national Church’s, which is owned by Cajun Global and then there is the Texas group that is owned by Store Capital. We put a lot of detail into the lawsuit. There are individuals in the lawsuit, including a company called Vertex, who did an inspection four months prior to the incident and said everything was great. Two others are a regional manager and owner, and a general manager. We had to restart this because we could not sue an engineering firm without a Certificate of Merit that the law requires us to get. We had to wait until that report was final so that we could comply with the law.”

Filed once more, the new venue will be Harris County. Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Aziz is the firm is the oldest operating plaintiff firm in Texas. Augusto describes the firm as old-fashioned trial lawyers and is thankful for the opportunity to represent two of the women.

Each lawsuit is for $75 million dollars, which Agosto admits there is not an exact science for. However, it is based off medical bills, future expenses and lost wages, among many other factors. Acevedo’s attorneys asked for $50 million in their lawsuit.

“Because we have been doing this for so long, we know what these cases are worth,” Agosto said. “The life-care plan is done by a medical doctor, who is preparing a report for what their medical bills are going to be for these women for the rest of their lives. It is in the millions of dollars just for medical.

“To date, each one of the women have exceeded a $1 million and one is over $3 million. Hugolina has had over 14 surgeries and Joselin has had 10 surgeries. Treatment and bills in the future is also going to be in the millions. That doesn’t account for lost wages, earning capacity, impairment, scarring, pain and suffering, mental anguish, and all of the things that they are entitled to. When we come up with these numbers, we come up with what we call hard numbers and then we have to add to that non-economic factors, which are intangibles.”

According to the attorney, 90 percent of Garzon’s body was burned and Gonzalez has had 70-75 percent burned.

“The scarring is permanent and all they are doing is taking the little bit of skin that they have left to do skin grafts,” he said. “The skin was burnt so severely because the hot oil was 300-400 degrees.”

When the collapse occurred, all three women fell into a hole that was about three feet deep, according to Agosto. They fell onto a subfloor when the fryers then tumbled on top of them.

“Erica and Joselyn were able to crawl themselves out, but Hugolina was trapped by the fryer and a cooler that fell on top of her. She stayed in there until one of the customers goes in and pulls things off of her and they were able to pull her out.

“The ambulance arrived relatively quickly, but (the women) were in there for minutes and we have 9-1-1 calls where you hear the women in pain and crying. You can hear the fear in the caller asking for people to come help. This was a horrific, devastating moment for these women. They have a great attitude, because they go to the Catholic church there in town, but their spirits are sometimes up and sometimes down. Physically, they will never be the same.”

Cajun Global is the third largest fast food company in the country behind McDonald’s and Burger King. Church’s was founded in San Antonio in 1952. Members that own Cajun Global mostly reside in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

After remaining in the hospital for six months the women are now being given both physical and emotional therapy, Agosto said. They are also undergoing follow-up surgeries because when the skin heals, it does not do so perfectly. There are portions of the skin that are tight and cannot move. None of the injuries are thought to be life-threatening and have been stabilized. Unless something unforeseen — such as infection — takes place, they will be healthy enough to survive.

However, Agosto said with the third and fourth-degree burns over the body, it could impact internal organs in the future.

“It is still going to be ongoing for several months. They are trying to get back to the best they can, because ‘normal’ is not the word. That’s why these cases are as large in magnitude that we are suing for. It’s not because we think a lot of money needs to be paid for what happened. If we do not come after these defendants hard now, we can’t come back years later and say they need more help. It all has to be done at the lawsuit now. That is why we hire life-care planners and economic experts, because now is the time that we have to prove it.”

03-24-churchs-lawsuitPRESS CONFERENCE — Attorney Benny Agosto Jr. (right) answers questions about the federal lawsuit filed in connection with the Aug. 1, 2016 incident at Church’s Chicken in Livingston that left three employees badly burned. Once of the victims, Hugolina Guerroro de Garzon (center) is pictured with her husband.

Copyright 2016 Polk County Enterprise