The plastics recycling business involved in an April 11 industrial fire has named the city and state in a lawsuit seeking $700,000 in damages.

Cornerstone Trading Group’s lawsuit in Circuit Court names the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, the city of Richmond and Richmond Fire Department as defendants. It claims the company has property within the fire site on North West F Street that it has not been permitted to retrieve.

The complaint filed Dec. 8 indicates Cornerstone filed a tort claim July 25 for the $700,000 because the three defendants jointly denied Cornerstone owner Seth Smith access to the fenced fire site, which occupies three properties, 308 N.W. F St. owned by Cornerstone, plus 310 N.W. F St. and 358 N.W. F St. owned by the city.

Cornerstone and Smith are defendants in a federal class-action lawsuit that was transferred from Wayne County to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Smith has filed a motion for a summary judgment in his favor.

Smith claims the plaintiffs, Tushawn Craig and Marquetta Stokes, have not presented evidence that would make Smith liable for any damages; therefore, he should be removed as a defendant. Indiana law does not allow limited liability corporation members to be held personally liable for damages. 

The motion says that the plaintiffs’ allegations do not meet the criteria for piercing a corporate veil, partly because Smith has “not used CTG to promote fraud or made fraudulent representations on behalf of CTG.”

Richmond has also been named a defendant in the class-action lawsuit and filed a crossclaim against Cornerstone and Smith, holding the owner and his company responsible for the fire that burned for multiple days and displaced up to 2,000 residents because of toxic smoke. The company and Smith have filed crossclaim responses that deny responsibility.

The filings assert that neither Cornerstone nor Smith contributed to the release of hazardous substances, the fire was started by an unknown arsonist and that city negligence contributed to the fire. Cornerstone’s court documents continue to blame an “unknown arsonist” although the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Richmond Fire Department have yet to determine the fire’s cause.

Cornerstone spread the plastics it collected from industrial customers across the three North West F Street properties, one of which it owned and two that were abandoned. The city received Unsafe Building Commission orders in 2019 against Cornerstone to clean up the properties, partly because they presented a fire hazard. A court upheld the orders.

After Cornerstone did not progress on the cleanup, the city used tax sale procedures to take ownership of the abandoned properties. The city and Smith established a process for him to continue shipping plastics truckload by truckload.

The fire began the afternoon of April 11, sending a black plume of toxic smoke into the air, causing authorities to declare an evacuation zone a half-mile around the fire. The fire burned several days across the entire three properties, leaving the evacuation order in place until April 16.

Asbestos-containing materials were identified in the rubble on the 310 and 358 properties owned by the city, but not on Cornerstone’s 308 property, and the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an emergency cleanup of the two city properties. The EPA said it had washed 441,000 pounds of steel and removed it for recycling during the first month, and it anticipated removing steel for the remainder of December.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 20 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.