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Jury awards $29 million verdict in fiery death case

A Fulton County county jury has awarded more than $29 million to the family of a 19-year-old killed in an industrial fire at the massive Newell Recycling facility in East Point.

Erik Hilario died during a gasoline fire at the recycling facility on Jan. 6, 2011. When the Fulton State Court jury returned its verdict on Sept. 2, it awarded Hilario's estate $8.25 million for his pain and suffering and $21 million to his parents for his wrongful death.

"The jury recognized that Erik was a wonderful young man and that he suffered greatly before he died," said Jeff Shiver, one of the lawyers representing the family and the estate.

Hilario worked at the recycling plant with both his father and his brother, and his father, Efrain Hilario, was at the site that night, Shiver said.

After the fire began, Efrain Hilario frantically searched for his son at the plant and even went to Erik's nearby apartment, breaking into it to see if his son was there. He then returned to the plant only to learn his son was dead, Shiver said.

"He had been seeking justice for his son for four and a half years," Shiver said. "And, finally, 12 jurors told him what happened wasn't right and that his son had tremendous value."

The jury also agreed the circumstances of Hilario's death warranted an award of punitive damages. But the parties reached a confidential settlement before jurors began hearing evidence during that phase of the trial, Shiver said.

The Newell Recycling facility accepted cars with gasoline in their tanks. But the company's process of removing the gasoline from the cars was flawed and led to unsafe working conditions, he said. Witnesses testified that gas routinely spilled onto the concrete floor, instead of going down a drain into holding tanks, Shiver said.

On Jan. 6, 2011, Erik Hilario was working the night shift, pushing scrap parts across the floor with a front-end loader.

This likely caused a spark that caused the nearby gasoline to ignite, Shiver said. "When that spark happened, Erik was engulfed in flames."

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Bill Rankin covers criminal justice for the Enterprise team.