Survivors of the tornado that destroyed a Kentucky candle factory have filed a class action lawsuit against the company, claiming it behaved with "flagrant indifference" to the lives and safety of its workers by refusing to allow them to leave early when the first tornado warnings were issued.
Tornadoes tore through six states on Friday, Dec. 10, leaving destruction in their wake. So far, at least 88 people have been reported dead; 76 of those victims were from Kentucky, the state hit hardest by the disaster. Among them were at least eight people who were inside the candle factory.
The lawsuit alleges that Mayfield Consumer Products, the company that owned the candle factory, had more than three hours' notice that the building was in the path of a tornado but failed to act to ensure the safety of the 110 employees working at the time — and even threatened employees with termination if they left before their shift ended.
"The Defendant knew or should have known about the expected tornado and the danger of serious bodily injuries and death to its employees if its employees were required to remain at its place of business during the pendency of the expected tornado," according to the civil complaint.
The case was filed on behalf of 18-year-old employee Elijah Johnson and "others similarly situated," defined as "natural persons over the age of 18 years [who] were working the night shift for the Defendant... when the tornado hit and destroyed the Defendant's place of business caused their injuries."
On Wednesday, lawyer Amos Jones told the Courier-Journal that the other plaintiffs "are not being identified by name because of real-time reprisals that already have begun."
Fifteen factory employees, including Johnson, told NBC News on Monday that they asked their managers if they could leave as the tornado approached and were rebuffed.
"I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired,” Johnson said. He told NBC News that when he asked his manager, "Even with the weather like this, you're still going to fire me?" they answered, "Yes."
Mayfield Consumer Products spokesperson Bob Ferguson denied the employees' allegations in a statement to the network, calling it "absolutely untrue."
“We’ve had a policy in place since COVID began," he said earlier this week. "Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.” BuzzFeed News has reached out to Mayfield Consumer Products for comment on the lawsuit.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Mayfield Consumer Products CEO Troy Propes said that the company was engaging "an independent expert team” to conduct a review of the actions taken by managers and employees in the hours before the tornadoes hit.
"We’re confident that our team leaders acted entirely appropriately and were, in fact, heroic in their efforts to shelter our employees,” Propes told the AP. “We are hearing accounts from a few employees that our procedures were not followed. We’re going to do a thorough review of what happened.”
On Wednesday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said that state investigators will conduct their own review of what happened and the factory's tornado safety practices.
"Everyone is expected to live up to certain standards of both the law, of safety, and of being decent human beings," he said. "I hope everybody lived up to those standards."
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