Explosion Victim’s Widow Awarded $15 Million in Landmark Chemical Plant Case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Following a tragic explosion at the Belle Chemical Plant in December 2020 that claimed the life of a dedicated worker, a civil jury in Kanawha County has made a significant ruling. The widow of the deceased worker has been awarded $15 million in connection with the explosion that shook eastern Kanawha County.

The jury, comprised of six members, reached this verdict after a thorough two-week wrongful death trial overseen by Kanawha County Circuit Judge Maryclaire Akers. Tina Gillenwater, the widow of John Gillenwater, sought justice by suing the plant owner, Optima Belle, and the chemical company Clearon Corp., among others, for the tragic death of her husband.

John Gillenwater, a 42-year-old worker at the plant, tragically lost his life on the evening when a new drying process involving chlorinated dry bleach led to a fatal explosion. The explosion, which occurred just after 10:00 p.m., resulted in the destruction of the building where the dryer was located and caused fatal injuries to Gillenwater.

Attorney Scott Segal, representing Tina Gillenwater, emphasized that the jury’s ruling underscored the preventable nature of the explosion, criticizing the chemical companies involved for their negligence. The trial delved into technical details, with the companies attempting to deflect blame onto each other. Ultimately, the jury attributed $10 million in damages under the state’s wrongful death statute, holding Clearon most responsible at 70% and Optima at 30%.

In addition to the compensatory damages, the jury also awarded $5 million for John Gillenwater’s conscious pain and suffering, recognizing the horrific nature of his injuries in the aftermath of the explosion. Despite the tragedy, Segal highlighted the resilience and faith of the Gillenwater family, who are using their faith to heal and rebuild their lives.

In the wake of the explosion, a local church community where John Gillenwater was a member mourned his loss, reflecting on his impact and character. Segal commended the attentiveness of the jury and the efficiency of Judge Akers throughout the trial, underscoring their dedication to justice in this heartbreaking case. Now, with the legal battle concluded, the Gillenwater family can begin to move forward and rebuild their lives, drawing strength from their faith and resilience to overcome this tragic chapter.