GWB Successfully Defends Toxic Chemical Exposure Case
Stephanie G. Flynn, a partner in Gallivan, White & Boyd’s Greenville, South Carolina, office, successfully defended a toxic chemical exposure case filed against a global supplier of construction and engineering staffing services in both the South Carolina District Court and Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendant.
The 37 year-old plaintiff brought a negligence action against the defendant after he was exposed to acrylonitrile (AN), a toxic chemical used in the production of carbon fiber. An employee of the defendant, intending to work on a water line, erroneously cut into and damaged a chemical line containing AN. The severing of the line caused a release of the chemical at the plaintiff’s work site. The area was successfully evacuated and secured without injuries.
The plaintiff, who was not injured from the initial release of the chemical, was one of three workers tasked with removing and replacing the damaged line. Despite that the plaintiff was in full personal protective equipment, and the area had been cleared for repairs, the plaintiff neglected to maintain the integrity of his protective gear, which included both his suit and breathing apparatus. He also failed to notify any supervisors of his exposure to AN during the complicated four hour repair process.
The plaintiff became increasingly sick over the following three days after his exposure, resulting in full respiratory failure and hospitalization. His medical condition only continued to worsen after that time, culminating in severe asthma, an alleged diagnosis of Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome, and a myriad of other health conditions related to his now chronic steroid use. The plaintiff alleges he is permanently and totally disabled from future employment due to the compromise of his pulmonary and immune systems and had actual damages verging on $4 million at the time summary judgment was granted in the District Court.
Given the facts, the District Court agreed that, while the actions of defendant’s employee may have caused the initial release of the toxic chemical at the site, the defendant was nonetheless entitled to summary judgment based on lack of proximate causation. Specifically, while the defendant’s employee was negligent, the plaintiff’s actions negated both causation-in-fact and legal cause as a matter of law. His own negligent actions intervened, cutting off the defendant’s liability.
Summary judgment was also granted on the grounds that plaintiff impliedly assumed the risk of his injuries by freely and voluntarily exposing himself to AN, negating a duty of care on the part of the defendant. Finally, the District Court found the plaintiff’s own overwhelming negligence accounted for more than a 50% cause of his injuries as a matter of law. The Fourth Circuit, in a per curiam opinion, affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the defendant.
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