Judge delays civil suit over alleged sabotage at grain elevator

Delay will allow prosecutors to decide on criminal charges

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

 

A Clark County judge Friday delayed a civil lawsuit against a former union worker accused of sabotaging operations at United Grain Corp. during a labor dispute in December.

The 90-day stay allows time for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to decide whether to file criminal charges against civil defendant Todd Walker.

Gene Mechanic, Walker’s attorney, argued Friday morning that allowing the civil case to move forward would violate his client’s constitutional right against self-incrimination. “(The plaintiff) specifically alleged the violation of criminal laws as part of the civil lawsuit: criminal mischief, criminal trespass, criminal sabotage, so there’s no question we are dealing with an indescribably intertwined set of two cases,” Mechanic said.

United Grain sued Walker, of Vancouver, on Feb. 28 for $300,000, claiming damages to grain equipment at the Port of Vancouver and related losses from a temporary shutdown of grain-loading operations. The civil suit would have compelled Walker to answer a series of questions by the end of April, in a process known as discovery.

Mechanic asked Superior Court Judge John Nichols to stay that requirement for six months to protect Walker from incriminating himself.

Daniel Barnhart, United Grain’s attorney, said it would be unfair to prevent him from questioning the defendant while Walker continues preparing his defense. Barnhart asked that neither side be allowed to subpoena documents or question each other and asked the stay last only 30 days. However, he said both sides should be allowed to question third-party witnesses.

“We shouldn’t be held hostage by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office because they may never charge him,” Barnhart said.

Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jeff McCarty said this week that he is still weighing whether to file criminal charges. He could not be reached Friday.

Nichols brought all discovery to a halt for 90 days. He said he felt that was a good balance between Walker’s Fifth Amendment right and the plaintiff’s right to have the matter resolved.

United Grain’s lawsuit says Walker, an official with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, was assigned to work Dec. 22 at the company’s terminal as a switchman, operating railroad switches to allow grain cars to be moved to and from the unloading area.

That day, the lawsuit alleges, Walker tried to sabotage the company’s operations by “throwing a pipe into the drag chain conveyer” and pouring sand into a progressor gearbox.

The union has denied any wrongdoing by its members.

The sabotage allegation intensified the labor dispute between United Grain and union members. On Feb. 27, United Grain locked out 44 union workers.

Meanwhile, the ILWU and United Grain have filed a series of unfair labor practice complaints against each other, which the National Labor Relations Board is investigating.

The contract dispute centers on dissatisfaction over working conditions and job security for union employees. The contract, which union members voted to reject, took effect in December. The new contract allows the company to hire fewer employees to assist in loading, gives managers more discretion in staffing decisions, and permits use of nonunion members for jobs union workers don’t want to work, according to the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association. The association includes United Grain and other terminal operators.

The union says the contract limits its ability to protect workers’ interests, such as maintaining family-wage jobs.

Lower Columbia River ports, including Vancouver, are major shipment points for grain grown in the Midwestern United States and sold to worldwide markets.