Jul 03 2019

COLUMBIA, SC—Womble Bond Dickinson client Mundy Maintenance Services and Operations, LLC and attorneys Keith Munson and Catherine Wrenn secured complete dismissals in three catastrophic personal injury lawsuits, including one for wrongful death that arose out of a 2016 explosion at a South Carolina chemical plant.

The plant manufactures polyethylene terephthalate (PET) commonly used to make soft-drink bottles. Although much of the plant was sold in 2011, the original owners, Eastman Chemical Company, maintained some facilities and production lines.

The current owner of the facility contracted with Mundy to provide maintenance and affiliated services at the site. In December 2016, pursuant to Eastman’s request, a group of workers, including the plaintiffs, who worked for the plant owners, and ones from Mundy, was assigned to work on one of the Eastman PET polymer lines. There was an explosion of molten polymer during the scope of that work, resulting in the death of one maintenance worker and severe burn injuries to two others. The estate of the deceased employee and the injured workers all filed lawsuits against Eastman and Mundy in 2017.

The case was heard in US District Court for the District of South Carolina. Munson and Wrenn filed motions to dismiss, arguing that the statutory employment doctrine shielded Mundy from any liability. In doing so, they knitted together the statutory employment, fellow servant and master-servant doctrines to argue that even though Mundy was not the statutory employer of the injured workers, its workers were the statutory fellow servants of the injured workers who were all working for Eastman. From there, the Womble Bond Dickinson team successfully made the case that if Mundy’s workers could not be liable to the plaintiffs under the statutory co-worker doctrine, then Mundy also could not be vicariously liable for those same workers’ actions. Significant to the result was Wrenn’s ability to relate the facts of this case to a 1977 South Carolina Supreme Court decision in which the Court found that if the defendant’s W2 employee enjoys workers’ compensation act immunity under ‘Section 42-5-10 “as a co-employee of the deceased,” then the W2 employer “ is likewise relieved of its vicarious liability.”

The Court initially denied Munson and Wrenn’s motions to dismiss, but they filed motions for reconsideration. The Court recently granted those motions and dismissed the complaints against Mundy, finding that “the court cannot avoid the conclusion that in South Carolina, the (South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act’s) tort immunity protects an employer from liability when its direct employee injures a fellow servant of their statutory employer.”

Keith Munson is a trial lawyer with more than 30 years of experience representing major corporations and governmental entities in complex litigation in the areas of product liability defense, mass tort defense, class action litigation, director and officer liability, and civil/securities fraud.

Catherine Wrenn litigates cases for businesses and health care providers, including physicians, hospitals, skilling nursing facilities, and assisted living facilities. Her practice includes advising clients on regulatory compliance and handling matters that involve Medicare fraud, wrongful death, personal injury, negligence, breach of contract, and breach of warranty.