Who is liable when an explosion goes off in the workplace?

Sojitz Corporation of America sued by workers for negligence, premises liability

Who is liable when an explosion goes off in the workplace?

The case of Daniel Brand and James Wells v. Sojitz Corporation of America, Sojitz Energy Venture, Inc. and Metton America, Inc. arose from an explosion and fire involving certain workers assigned to the Metton LaPorte plant in Harris County, Texas.

According to the workers, they reported issues about malfunctioning equipment and ongoing operations at the plant in May 2018. Sojitz Corporation of America (SCA) and others allegedly failed to sufficiently address the situation, including by evacuating them or by minimizing potential hazards.

The workers claimed that they were ordered to keep working. A significant explosion and fire followed, which allegedly caused injuries to their heads, arms, necks, backs, and other body parts, along with emotional disturbance, including anxiety and difficulties in focusing, concentrating, and sleeping.

The workers sued SCA for negligence, gross negligence, and premises liability. They asked for damages of over $1 million, including compensatory, actual, consequential, and exemplary damages and recovery for pain and suffering, past and future mental anguish, past and future impairment, and past and future disfigurement.

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The workers claimed that SCA created an unreasonably dangerous condition that proximately caused their injuries. SCA allegedly breached the following duties:

  • to warn them of the plant’s dangerous conditions
  • to exercise reasonable care to guard against known and foreseeable hazards
  • to provide a safe work environment
  • to protect workers from fire or explosion
  • to adequately train its employees
  • to sufficiently develop and implement appropriate policies and procedures
  • to adequately supervise its personnel
  • to timely recognize an emergency or hazardous situation
  • to provide adequate first aid and assistance

The workers’ claim for premises liability alleged that SCA owned, occupied, or controlled the area where the injuries occurred and knew that the area posed an unreasonably dangerous condition or an unreasonable risk of harm.

SCA filed a summary judgment motion. No evidence supported the workers’ negligence, gross negligence, and premises liability claims, SCA argued. It asserted that it should not be a party to the workers’ lawsuit, that it did not own or operate the plant where the injuries occurred, and that it was not involved in the alleged incident.

Workers’ claims of negligence denied

The trial court granted summary judgment in SCA’s favor on the workers’ negligence, gross negligence, and premises liability claims against it.

The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas affirmed the trial court’s judgment in SCA’s favor. It found that the evidence did not support that SCA owed the workers a duty of care.

The appellate court rejected the following arguments of the workers. First, it did not agree that there was a genuine material factual issue on whether SCA assumed a duty of care to the workers when it voluntarily undertook the responsibility of providing the Metton LaPorte plant with safety training.

Second, the appellate court disagreed that the safety manager’s testimony that Sojitz provided annual online training and a class about shipping hazardous goods for the plant’s salaried employees raised a factual issue about whether SCA assumed a duty to furnish the plant with safety training.

Instead, the evidence showed that the plant had its own operation method and procedures and that SCA did not give any opinions or comments about how Metton should operate its LaPorte plant, the court said. Sojitz’s class focusing on the shipment of hazardous goods was not the same as safety training for operating a resin manufacturing plant, the appellate court added.

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