Chemical 'Inferno' May Net Burned Worker More
(CN) - A metal recycler may owe more to the maintenance worker who already won $4 million for severe burns he sustained in a chemical accident, the South Carolina appeals court ruled.
Scott Lawing was a maintenance worker for Engelhard Corp. in Seneca, S.C. Before BASF Corp. bought the company in 2006, it refined and recycled metal for the automobile industry.
In June 2004, Lawing was lowering cut sections of pipe to a co-worker, when he saw of "flash" in a pallet of materials. An "inferno" erupted, engulfing Lawing in flames as he fell 20 feet to the floor, the court said.
Lawing broke his ankles, heels and four bones in his back. After he landed, he was still on fire.
"I thought I was going to die," he testified.
In addition to suffering burns on 42 percent of his body, Lawing became severely disfigured. His eyes are sensitive to light, and he must take asthma medication for the rest of his life.
Lawing and two of his co-workers sued Univar USA, Trinity Manufacturing and Matrix Outsourcing, which were part of the supply chain for the sodium bromate that ignited. The material came to the port of Charleston on a boat from China.
They asserted claims of breach of warranty, negligence and strict liability, arguing that the bags carrying the sodium bromide were combustible and that workers were not adequately warned of the sodium bromide's "propensity ... to ignite explosively in the presence of the packaging materials used."
An Oconee County judge ruled in favor of Lawing for breach of express warranty but in favor the defendants on his other claims. On the strict liability claim, the trial court agreed with the defendants that Lawing did not qualify as a "user" or "consumer" under the strict liability doctrine.
Still, the jury awarded Lawing $4.1 million on the breach of express warranty claim. The South Carolina Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday that the jury was properly instructed on the sophisticated user doctrine. It also found, however, that Lawing's strict liability claim should have moved forward with a broad definition of the word "user."
"Trinity and Matrix cannot seriously suggest they did not intend for Lawing to examine the bags for information warning him it would be unsafe to leave them in the work area," Chief Judge John Few wrote for the court. "Lawing testified he looked at the pallets and the bags for any labels, and he saw nothing indicating he should not work near them. In that respect, Lawing used the product exactly as Trinity and Matrix intended. Accordingly, Lawing was a user of the product."
The court remanded the case for a new trial on the strict liability claim.