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Law v. Chemtall, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Whole Court

June 28, 2017

LAW et al.

          MERCIER, JUDGE.

         Michael Law and his wife, Kristin Law, appeal the trial court's order granting a directed verdict to Chemtall, Inc. ("Chemtall"). The underlying facts of this case are undisputed. Chemtall operates a chemical plant. In August 2011, Chemtall contracted with Daybreak Insulation, Inc. ("Daybreak"), to work on an insulation project in an area of Chemtall known as the "tank farm." Michael Law (hereinafter "Law") was an employee of Daybreak and was assigned to work on the insulation project in the tank farm. On August 30, 2011, while working on the project, Law descended a scaffolding ladder and stepped in a puddle of liquid that he thought was water. He slipped and the liquid splashed onto his leg. Law testified that he had walked through the puddle "all day" and for several days before the incident. Law stated that he had "encountered the puddle the whole time we was [sic] in there." After the liquid splashed on him, Law walked to a break room and began eating his lunch. About 10 to 15 minutes later, he began experiencing a burning sensation in his leg. He went to a water spigot and began washing his leg. Law told a supervisor what happened. The supervisor told Law to wash off in the shower, and Law complied. He sought medical treatment the next day.

         The chemical sodium hydroxide was present at the worksite, and Chemtall had placed a sign advising workers that sodium hydroxide was present and hazardous. The puddle in which Law had slipped was sodium hydroxide, and as a result of his contact with the chemical, Law suffered severe chemical burns on his leg. Law testified that he knew that if a pipe at a chemical plant leaked, a worker could be exposed to chemicals. He also understood that if he was exposed to chemicals, specifically if chemicals got on his skin, he could be harmed. Law had also undergone safety training, and had been instructed that if he was exposed to a chemical, he "needed to go to the shower area and wash it off."

         The Laws filed suit alleging negligence on the part of Chemtall. Chemtall filed a motion for summary judgment, but the trial court did not rule on the motion. The case was called for trial in November 2015. At the conclusion of the Laws' case-in-chief, Chemtall made a motion for directed verdict, asserting that Chemtall fulfilled its duty to warn the independent contractor of the hazards. The trial court granted the motion. In their sole enumeration of error, the Laws contend that the trial court erred in granting Chemtall's motion for directed verdict. The contention is without merit.

         "[A] directed verdict is appropriate only if there is no conflict in the evidence as to any material issue and the evidence introduced, construed most favorably to the party opposing the motion, demands a particular verdict." St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. v. Meeks, 270 Ga. 136, 137 (1) (508 S.E.2d 646) (1998) (citations omitted). "In reviewing the grant of a motion for a directed verdict, this Court applies the 'any evidence' test and construes the evidence in the light most favorable to the losing party." Cottrell v. Smith, 299 Ga. 517, 518 (1) (788 S.E.2d 772) (2016) (citation omitted).

In Georgia
[i]t is well settled that an owner or occupier of land is liable in damages to invitees who come upon his land for injuries occasioned by his failure to exercise ordinary care in keeping the premises safe. . . . Under this principle is found the duty of an owner of premises to an individual contractor and his employees who lawfully come upon the premises in the performance of a contract between the owner and the contractor because the independent contractor and his employees are invitees. Thus, an owner having work done on his premises by an independent contractor, who has actual or constructive knowledge of potential dangers on the premises, owes a duty to the contractor to give warning of, or use ordinary care to furnish protection against, such dangers to the contractor and his employees who are without actual or constructive notice of the dangers, and which could not be discovered by them in the exercise of ordinary care.

West v. Briggs & Stratton Corp., 244 Ga.App. 840, 844 (536 S.E.2d 828) (2000) (footnote and citation omitted, emphasis supplied). Further,

[a]lthough property owners owe a duty to their own invitees, they owe no such duty to employees of or others invited upon the premises by an independent contractor hired to do work on the premises if two conditions exist: 1) the owner has relinquished possession of the premises, in whole or in part and 2) the owner does not have the right and does not actually control or direct the work done.

McClure v. Equitable Real Estate Investment Mgmt., Inc., 195 Ga.App. 54, 55 (392 S.E.2d 272) (1990) (citations omitted). Therefore, unless Chemtall met both prongs of the McClure test, it owed a duty to the independent contractor, Daybreak.

         The record contains some evidence that Chemtall did not relinquish possession of the property. At the time of the incident, Chemtall had a "Process Safety, Health and Environmental Orientation Training Program Booklet" that it required contractors, such as Daybreak, to follow. The booklet states:

It is required that the SNF Operations Manager jointly with the Contractor Working Supervisor Representative and the SNFHC Mai ntenance/Engineer Manager if involved, must be in the area where the working activities are to be conducted; determine if acceptable conditions exist to authorize and approve working activities or terminate them.[1]

(emphasis in original). "[P]ossession may be defined as having personal charge of or exercising the rights of management or control over the property in question." West, supra at 845. The requirement in the training program booklet that a Chemtall employee be in the area where the Daybreak employees were working suggests that Chemtall retained partial possession of the premises where Daybreak was working. Because Chemtall possibly retained possession of a portion of the premises, evidence exists that Chemtall did not meet one of the two prongs of the McClure test. "Only if both conditions [of the McClure test] are satisfied is the owner relieved of any duty toward invitees." West, supra at 846. As the evidence was in conflict regarding whether Chemtall relinquished possession of the property, the first prong of the McClure test was not satisfied. Thus, we need not consider the second prong of the McClure test.

         While Chemtall was not relieved of its duty to Law under the McClure test, Chemtall was still entitled to a directed verdict because the evidence was undisputed that it discharged its duty. It is well settled that "[f]ull knowledge by [an] independent contractor of the dangers should and will be held to discharge the landowner's alternative duty to warn the employees." McKinney v. Regents of the Univ. Sys. of Ga., 284 Ga.App. 250, 252 (1) (643 S.E.2d 736) (2007) (footnote and citation omitted). Evidence was indeed presented that Chemtall warned Daybreak of the potential chemical dangers present in the tank farm, such that Daybreak had full knowledge of the potential hazards. This included posting a sign concerning the presence and dangers of sodium hydroxide, and mandating that Daybreak give its employees a safety training program that informed employees of potential ...

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