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Tort/Negligence – Woodson & Pleasant Claims – Fatal Accident – Machine Part Installation

Blue v. Mountaire Farms, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-171-16, 29 pp.) (Mark Davis, J.) Appealed from Robeson County Superior Court (James Gregory Bell, J.) N.C. App.

Holding:  Since plaintiff was responding to a co-worker’s request for help when he stepped into the room just at the point when the co-worker opened a machine part that allowed ammonia to escape explosively, killing the co-worker and seriously injuring plaintiff and a supervisor, plaintiff cannot show that the defendant-employer placed plaintiff in danger.

We reverse the trial court’s denial of defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

Plaintiff’s Woodson v. Rowland, 329 N.C. 330, 407 S.E.2d 222 (1991), claim also fails because he cannot show that the employer knew that replacing the machine part was substantially certain to cause serious injury or death. The evidence shows that the co-worker led his supervisor to believe that the installation could be performed safely.

This was the first time such a project had been attempted. Moreover, the evidence suggests that the part could, in fact, have been safely installed by defendant’s employees had the ammonia been drained before the installation.

Plaintiff has not shown that the employer intentionally engaged in conduct that it knew was substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to its employees.

Plaintiff has also failed to make out a Pleasant v. Johnson, 312 N.C. 710, 325 S.E.2d 244 (1985), claim against the individual defendants.

The defendant-supervisor’s lack of knowledge on this subject was demonstrated by the fact that he stood close enough to the machine during the attempted installation so that, when the ammonia was released, he – like plaintiff – was seriously injured. It logically follows that he could not have formed the constructive intent to expose plaintiff to a hazardous situation as would be necessary in order for a viable Pleasant claim to exist on these facts. Moreover, the supervisor was not responsible for plaintiff’s presence in the room where the installation was being performed.

Even assuming the managerial employees were mistaken in their belief that the project could be safely performed by their employees, there is no indication in the record that the need to hire independent contractors was so obvious that a contrary decision amounted to the sort of willful, wanton, and reckless conduct required to support a Pleasant claim.

Reversed and remanded.

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