Lawsuits filed in the wake of a chemical release incident that killed one contract worker and injured two others can proceed, according to a U.S. appeals court.
The 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals reversed an earlier ruling that barred lawsuits filed by the injured workers and the family of the deceased worker, according to Business Insurance.
The earlier ruling barred the lawsuit over the exclusive remedy of the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Loosening bolts results in explosion of molten liquid
In December 2016, DAK Americas maintenance workers Alton Zeigler, Jacob Jackson and Kevin Vann attempted to remove a malfunctioning pump on a chemical production line.
The South Carolina facility they were working in was owned and operated by Eastman Chemical Co. Eastman contracted maintenance work with DAK, which then contracted with Mundy Maintenance Service and Operations LLC.
Zeigler, Jackson and Vann loosened the bolts securing the pump without draining it first, resulting in an explosion of molten liquid that killed Zeigler and severely burned Jackson and Vann.
The two injured workers and Zeigler’s spouse filed separate lawsuits against Eastman and Mundy in April 2017 accusing Eastman of mismanaging the chemical line and accusing Mundy’s employees of negligence in a prior attempt to unclog the drainpipe.
The lawsuits were consolidated and Eastman asked a district court to dismiss them, arguing that the contractors were Eastman’s statutory employees under South Carolina’s workers’ compensation law. The district court agreed.
Appeals court applies new case law
On appeal with the 4th U.S. District Court of Appeals, the court reversed applying “relatively new case law” in the form of a 2019 decision of South Carolina’s Supreme Court in Keene v. CNA Holdings.
That case clarified that “when an employer makes a ‘legitimate business decision’ to outsource a portion of its work, the contractors it hires to perform that work are not ‘statutory employees’ for workers compensation purposes.”
The appeals court said that means the contract workers in the current case didn’t qualify as statutory employees and could bring personal injury actions against the companies.