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Vann v. Eastman Chemical Company

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Orangeburg Division

May 20, 2019

Kevin R. Vann and Kelli D. Vann, Plaintiffs,
v.
Eastman Chemical Company and Mundy Maintenance Services and Operations, LLC, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiffs Kevin R. Vann and Kelli D. Vann (together “Plaintiffs”) filed this action alleging that Kevin Vann was injured as a result of the negligence of Defendants Eastman Chemical Company (“Eastman”) and Mundy Maintenance Services and Operations, LLC (“Mundy”) (together “Defendants”). (ECF No. 1.)

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiffs' Motion for Reconsideration (ECF No. 125) of the Order entered on October 23, 2018 (the “October Order”), granting Eastman's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 54). (ECF No. 111 at 19-20.) Eastman opposes Plaintiffs' Motion asserting that the October Order “correctly granted Eastman's Motion to Dismiss.” (ECF No. 126 at 10.) For the reasons set forth below, the court DENIES Plaintiffs' Motion for Reconsideration.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND TO PENDING MOTION

         This case arises out of an industrial accident that occurred on December 6, 2016, at a chemical manufacturing facility (the “Facility”) located “on the banks of the Congaree River near Sandy Run a few miles northeast of Gaston in Calhoun County, South Carolina.” (ECF No. 59 at 2.) Eastman operated the Facility from 1967 until 20ll manufacturing polyethylene terephthalate (“PET”), a material “commonly used in soda bottles.” (ECF No. 1 at 2 ¶ 8-3 ¶ 10.) On January 31, 2011, Eastman sold specified parts of the Facility to DAK Americas, LLC (“DAK”), “a subsidiary of Alpek S.A.B. de C.V., a Mexican chemical manufacturing company.” (Id. ¶ 10.) “DAK purchased . . . polymer and chemical manufacturing lines, certain on-site utilities and services to support such operations, but specifically excluded some retained facilities at the Plant.” (ECF No. 59 at 3.) “Among the retained assets [of Eastman] were: 1, 000 acres of land, six to ten buildings and four production lines out of thirteen which are making substantially similar products to those produced prior to the sale (the ‘Retained Assets').” (Id. (citing ECF No. 78-1 at 29:14- 30:25, 32:3-14, 53:1-25 & ECF No. 78-2 at 28:13-29:9, 53:3-15).) Additionally, “[w]hen Eastman sold the Facility to DAK, nearly all of Eastman's 400 employees at the site became DAK employees at the time of the sale and continued doing the same jobs.” (ECF No. 54 at 4 (citing ECF No. 78-1 at 57:1-23).) As a result, DAK's employees “operate[d] and maintain[ed] Eastman's retained lines the same way that they did while they were employed by Eastman.” (ECF No. 78-1 at 57:13-17.)

         “Two contracts between Eastman and DAK memorialize that agreement.” (ECF No. 54 at 5.) “First, under the Operating Agreement, Eastman pays DAK to provide its employees to operate the Eastman Retained lines, which generally run twenty-four hours a day.” (Id. (referencing ECF No. 54-3).) “The operators report to supervisors within DAK's chain of command, and the DAK Area Manager serves as the liaison to Eastman.” (Id.) “Second, there is a separate Services Agreement, under which Eastman pays DAK to provide, among other things, employees from DAK's maintenance department to perform maintenance and repairs on the Retained Lines.” (Id. (referencing ECF No. 54-4).) “DAK's employees, including Plaintiff [Kevin] Vann, were Eastman's operations and maintenance workforce at the time of the Incident pursuant to the Operations Agreement and Services Agreement.” (Id. at 6 (citations omitted).) As an operations and maintenance worker, Kevin Vann did the same type of work for DAK after the sale as he did for Eastman before the sale. (ECF No. 78-1 at 60:1-6.)

         After purchasing the Facility, DAK contracted with Mundy to “provide[] maintenance services at the site.” (ECF No. 78-2 at 126:19-20.) Employees of Mundy were asked on December 3, 2016, “to heat a drain pipe [] near the Pump with a torch flame.” (ECF No. 55 at 3.)

         On December 6, 2016, Kevin Vann, along with DAK co-workers, Alton Ray Zeigler and Jacob S. Jackson, were assigned to perform preventative maintenance on line A, one of the four Eastman “Retained Asset” production lines, which involved draining the AC-11 loop to clean out any molten material and pulling/separating the AC-11 pump from its housing to replace a leaking seal. (ECF No. 78-1 at 109:5-11, 114:9-14, 115:7-15 & 135:2-24.) During the performance of this maintenance, “an explosion erupted shortly after Plaintiff Kevin Vann [] [, Zeigler, and Jackson] loosened bolts on the pump.” (ECF No. 59 at 6.) The explosion sprayed hot molten polymer throughout the workspace, injuring Vann and Jackson and killing Zeigler. (Id.)

         As a result of the foregoing, Plaintiffs filed an action in this court on April 19, 2017, alleging claims against Eastman for negligence, wrongful death, negligent failure to warn and loss of consortium and against Mundy for negligence and loss of consortium. (ECF No. 1 at 8 ¶ 56- 12 ¶ 77.) Additionally, Plaintiffs alleged that they are entitled to an award of punitive and exemplary damages. (Id. at 12 ¶ 78-13 ¶ 81.) After engaging in court-ordered jurisdictional discovery with Plaintiffs (see ECF No. 39 at 1 ¶ 2), Eastman filed a Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction on November 30, 2017, asserting that Kevin Vann was a “statutory employee” of Eastman under the South Carolina Workers' Compensation Act (the “Act”), SC Code §§ 42-1-10 to -19-50 (2017), such that the Act is Plaintiffs' exclusive remedy. (ECF No. 54.) In their December 21, 2017 Response in Opposition, Plaintiffs expressly did not agree that Kevin Vann was Eastman's statutory employee for purposes of its Motion. (ECF No. 59.) Thereafter, the court entered the October Order granting Eastman's Motion to Dismiss. (ECF No. 111.)

         On February 22, 2019, Plaintiffs filed the instant Motion for Reconsideration. (ECF No. 125.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD AND ANALYSIS

         In the October Order, the court made the following observations in granting Eastman's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 54):

To determine whether Kevin Vann was a statutory employee of Eastman at the time he was injured, the court considered the parties' evidence concerning Eastman's general trade, business, or occupation. See Poch, 747 S.E.2d at 761 (“[T]his Court has the power and duty to review the entire record and decide the jurisdictional facts in accord with the preponderance of the evidence.” (citation omitted)). Upon its review, the court observes that the parties dispute what is Eastman's business, trade, or occupation. Eastman asserts that it is in the business of producing specialty chemicals. (ECF No. 78-1 at 22:21-23; ECF No. 78-2 at 31:10-13, 166:19-167:4.) Plaintiffs assert that Eastman is “a chemical product sales company, selling chemicals produced by DAK employees on equipment owned by Eastman” because it “does not receive the raw materials, does not have any employees capable of running the operations of the lines, does not remove the product from the line, and does not place the product into shipping containers.” (ECF No. 59 at 21 (citing ECF No. 78-2 at 92:15-93:19)). Despite the parties' contrasting positions, there is no dispute of fact that Eastman's business requires the presence of chemical product and without such chemical product, Eastman cannot sell or produce anything. Moreover, caselaw does not necessarily require that such chemical product be exclusively produced by Eastman's employees. See Singleton, 533 F.Supp. at 890 (“[A] person is performing the trade, business or occupation of the employer if the person contracts with the owner to perform a duty which is essential to the function of the owner's continued business despite the fact the owner may never have performed the same chore with his own employees.” (citations omitted)).
On the day Kevin Vann, there is also no dispute of fact that he was performing preventative maintenance on one of the lines that produces chemicals for Eastman. (ECF No. 78-1 at 112:2-117:2.) The appellate courts of South Carolina have held that maintenance considerations are an important part of a statutory employer's trade, business, or occupation. In Marchbanks v. Duke Power Co., 2 S.E.2d 825 (S.C. 1939), “the [South Carolina Supreme] Court found that an independent contractor who was hired to paint telephone poles on behalf of Duke Power was a statutory employee under the Workmen's Compensation Law on the basis that Marchbanks was engaged in part of the defendant's business, because the maintenance of utility poles was necessary to the distribution of electricity.” Singleton, 533 F.Supp. at 890 (citing Marchbanks, 2 S.E.2d at 837). In Boseman v. Pac. Mills, 79, 8 S.E.2d 878, (S.C. 1940), the South Carolina Supreme Court stated as follows in finding that the maintenance of the water tank was an integral part of the mill's business for fire prevention purposes:
The tank was an integral part of the mill business. There was also testimony to the effect that the mill desired that the work on the inside of the tank be completed as soon as possible so that its every day, ordinary service, that of fire protection, could be resumed, it being shown that the mill depended upon this tank for such protection. The very nature of the work done by the mill, that of the manufacture of cotton into cloth, especially required the best of protection against fire. Hence, this tank was particularly necessary and essential in the operation and carrying on of the business of the mill. It, therefore, follows that the painting of the tank was such a part of the trade, ...

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