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Machin v. Carus Corp.

Supreme Court of South Carolina

April 26, 2017

John William Machin, Plaintiff,
v.
Carus Corporation, Defendant. Appellate Case No. 2015-000901

          Heard December 1, 2015

         ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA Joseph F. Anderson, Senior United States District Judge

          John S. Nichols, of Bluestein Nichols Thompson & Delgado, of Columbia; Frederick I. Hall, III, of the Rick Hall Law Firm, of Lexington; and John K. Koon, of Koon & Cook, of Columbia, for Plaintiff.

          Gray T. Culbreath and Jessica A. Waller, of Gallivan White & Boyd, P.A., of Columbia; and J. Arthur Davidson and Sonja R. Tate, of Fulcher Hagler LLP, of Augusta, Georgia, for Defendant.

          Alan Jones, of McGangus, Goudelock & Courie, of Myrtle Beach; and David C. Marshall, of Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, of Columbia, for amici curiae South Carolina Defense Trial Attorneys' Association and DRI -The Voice of the Defense Bar.

         CERTIFIED QUESTION

         CERTIFIED QUESTIONS ANSWERED

          KITTREDGE, JUSTICE

         This Court accepted the following certified questions from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina:

1. Under South Carolina law, when a Plaintiff seeks recovery from a person, other than his employer, for an injury sustained on the job, may the jury hear an explanation of why the employer is not part of the instant action?
2. Under South Carolina law, when a Plaintiff seeks recovery from a person, other than his employer, for an injury sustained on the job, may a defendant argue the empty chair defense and suggest that Plaintiff's employer is the wrongdoer?
3. In connection with Question 2, if a defendant retains the right to argue the empty chair defense against Plaintiff's employer, may a court instruct the jury that an employer's legal responsibility has been determined by another forum, specifically, the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Commission?
4. Under South Carolina law, when a Plaintiff seeks recovery from a person, other than his employer, for an injury sustained on the job, may the Court allow the jury to apportion fault against the non-party employer by placing the name of the employer on the verdict form?

         The certified questions come to this Court in the context of a pending post-trial motion in the federal court litigation. We answer these questions only in the abstract, without any suggestion as to the resolution of the post-trial motion, which remains in the capable hands of the esteemed and learned federal judge, Joseph F. Anderson. As detailed below, we answer Questions 1, 2, and 3 "yes, " provided a defense seeks to assign fault to the plaintiff's employer. We answer Question 4 "no."

         I.

         Defendant Carus Corp. (Carus) is an international company that develops and sells chemical products for municipal and industrial applications. Defendant's products include a chemical called Totalox, which is an odor eliminator that, essentially, is designed as a deodorizer for sewer systems.[1] The Town of Lexington (Town) used Totalox in its sewer treatment plants. On April 13, 2010, Plaintiff John William Machin, a Town employee, was exposed to Totalox when a storage container valve broke during the delivery of Totalox to one of the Town's wastewater stations.[2]Plaintiff thereafter suffered reactive airways syndrome, which is also known as chemically induced asthma or obstructive lung disease.

         As a result of his injuries, Plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim and was awarded workers' compensation benefits. In August 2012, Plaintiff filed suit in federal court against Carus and several other defendants seeking recovery for his injuries which he alleged were caused by his exposure to Totalox. In addition to Carus, Plaintiff sued The Andersons (the "tolling" company that manufactured the finished Totalox product by compounding the proprietary chemical provided by Carus with its own stock of raw materials (calcium nitrate and water)); Fetter & Sons (the third-party company hired by The Andersons to deliver Totalox to the Town on the day of Plaintiff's injuries); and Terry Weiser (the delivery truck driver). Fetter & Sons and Weiser settled with Plaintiff in February 2013. Carus and The Andersons proceeded to trial in January 2015.

         During pre-trial conferences, the parties argued about what, if anything, the federal court would tell the jury regarding Plaintiff's workers' compensation recovery. Ultimately, it appears the federal court held that Carus and The Andersons retained the right to make the so-called "empty chair" defense-asserting the Town's negligence was the sole proximate cause of Plaintiff's injuries; however, the parties were not allowed to mention workers' compensation, and the federal court did not instruct the jury regarding workers' compensation.

         At trial, Carus took the position that Plaintiff's exposure was insufficient to have caused any permanent respiratory injury, that the other Town employees present were not injured, and that no one had previously claimed such an injury from Totalox exposure. Carus also presented evidence that it provided the Town with material safety data sheets (MSDS), on-product warning labels, and an informational data sheet, all of which warned of the dangers of exposure to Totalox and instructed that users should wear personal protective equipment, including respirators, in situations where exposure to mist could occur. Carus argued that both the Town and Plaintiff ignored these warnings and that this failure to heed warnings was the sole proximate cause of Plaintiff's injuries.

         Shortly after jury deliberations began, the jury submitted the following question: "Why is the Town of Lexington not included in the lawsuit?" In response (and after lengthy discussion with the parties), the federal court informed the jury that they were to consider only the evidence presented and the court's instructions on the applicable law. While the jury continued deliberations, Plaintiff took a voluntary nonsuit as to The Andersons. The jury form was subsequently amended to remove reference to The Andersons, and the jury ultimately returned a defense verdict in favor of Carus.

         Plaintiff thereafter filed a motion for a new trial arguing that the federal court erred in refusing any argument or jury instructions about workers' compensation while allowing Carus to argue its empty chair defense placing responsibility for Plaintiff's injuries on the Town. After receiving memoranda from the parties on the issues, the federal court determined that South Carolina law is unclear as to how the motion should be resolved. The federal court then certified the above questions to this Court and took the motion for a new trial under advisement pending this Court's consideration of these certified questions.

         II.

         We answer the certified questions by analyzing two statutory schemes, the Workers' Compensation Act and the Uniform Contribution Among Tortfeasors Act.

         A.

         The Workers' Compensation Act is a comprehensive scheme created to provide compensation to employees injured by accidents arising out of and in the course of their employment. Parker v. Williams & Madjanik, Inc., 275 S.C. 65, 69-70, 267 S.E.2d 524, 526 (1980). "The Workers' Compensation Act was designed to supplant tort law by providing a no-fault system focusing on quick recovery, relatively ascertainable awards, and limited litigation." Nicholson v. S.C. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 411 S.C. 381, 389, 769 S.E.2d 1, 5 (2015) (citing Wigfall v. Tideland Utils., Inc., 354 S.C. 100, 115, 580 S.E.2d 100, 107 (2003)).

         The concept of workers' compensation is "founded upon recognition of the advisability, from the standpoint of society as well as of employer and employee, of discarding the common law idea of tort liability in the employer-employee relationship and of substituting therefor the principle of liability on the part of the employer, regardless of fault, to compensate the employee, in predetermined amounts based upon his wages, for loss of earnings resulting from accidental injury arising out of and in the course of employment." Parker, 275 S.C. at 69-70, 267 S.E.2d at 526 (quoting Case v. Hermitage Cotton Mills, 236 S.C. 515, 530-31, 115 S.E.2d 57, 66 (1960)) (internal quotation marks omitted). "The employee receives the right to swift and sure compensation; the employer receives immunity from tort actions by the employee." Id. "This quid pro quo approach to [workers'] compensation has worked to the advantage of society as well as the employee and the employer." Id.

         Section 42-1-540 of the Workers' Compensation Act is an exclusivity provision, disallowing tort suits against the employer and limiting the injured employee's rights and ...


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