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JCG Farms of Alabama, LLC v. Morgan

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

February 13, 2019

JCG FARMS OF ALABAMA, LLC
v.
MORGAN.

          MILLER, P. J., BROWN and GOSS, JJ.

          Goss, Judge.

         On February 7, 2016, an explosion occurred at a chicken feed manufacturing plant in Rockmart ("Rockmart Mill") that is owned and controlled by JCG Farms of Alabama, LLC ("JCG Farms"). The explosion seriously injured Tyler Morgan, who was working at the Rockmart Mill as a control room operator at the time. Morgan sued JCG Farms, inter alia, for negligence. After Morgan filed a motion for partial summary judgment, JCG Farms moved to withdraw any of its responses to Morgan's request for admission stating that Morgan was not its employee. JCG Farms appeals from the trial court's order denying the motion to withdraw admissions in judicio and granting summary judgment in favor of Morgan as to JCG Farms' affirmative defense under the Workers' Compensation Act. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         On January 12, 2017, Morgan filed this premises liability action against JCG Farms as the owner of the Rockmart Mill property. Morgan's complaint alleged that JCG Farms was the owner of the Rockmart Mill property and that Morgan and other injured workers were on the premises as invitees. JCG Farms filed an answer acknowledging ownership and control of the feed mill, but asserting that the Workers' Compensation Act provides the exclusive remedy for Morgan. The exclusive remedy provision of OCGA § 34-9-11 applies only if JCG Farms was Morgan's employer. See OCGA § 34-9-11 (a). Accord Champion v. Pilgrim's Pride Corp. of Delaware, Inc., 286 Ga.App. 334, 338 (c) (649 S.E.2d 329) (2007) ("It is well settled that an injured employee's sole and exclusive remedy is under the Workers' Compensation Act where the injury arises out of and in the scope of employment"). Morgan argues that the Workers' Compensation Act exclusive remedy does not apply to him because he is an employee of JCG Foods, not JCG Farms.

         The record shows that the Rockmart Mill is a chicken feed manufacturing plan owned and controlled by JCG Farms. JCG Foods of Alabama, Inc. is another company in a complex corporate structure of their parent company, Koch Foods, Inc. Koch Foods produces and processes chicken for commercial distribution, and the various corporate entities under its control operate different aspects of chicken production. Although JCG Farms and JCG Foods are part of the same corporate structure, there is no dispute that they operate independently and have separate budgets, assets, and employer identification numbers.

         Throughout the litigation, JCG Farms has admitted that Morgan was an employee of JCG Foods, as opposed to JCG Farms. JCG Farms admitted as much in its answer, in its responses to Plaintiff's Request for Interrogatories, and in its responses to Morgan's Request for Admissions.[1] JCG Farms admitted in briefing before the trial court that its responses to the Requests for Admission were based upon "information provided by the Human Resources and Risk Management departments regarding, among other things, the corporate structure of Koch Foods, Inc., the operations of the Rockmart feed mill, and the employment relationship between the corporate entities involved in the operation of the Rockmart mill and the workers at the mill." Further, paystubs for checks issued to Morgan in January/February 2016 identify JCG Foods as his employer, and JCG Foods sent Morgan a W-2 form and reported Morgan as an employee to the IRS.

         On December 4, 2017, Morgan filed a motion in which he sought partial summary judgment as to JCG Farms' workers compensation exclusive remedy defense. Morgan argued that JCG Farms admitted in judicio that it was not Morgan's employer. JCG Farms then filed a motion to withdraw admissions. The trial court denied JCG Farms' motion to withdraw the admissions, and granted Morgan's motion for partial summary judgment.

         1. JCG Farms argues that the trial court erred by denying its motion to withdraw its admission in judicio that Morgan was its employee.

         Once an admission has been made for purposes of OCGA § 9-11-36, the matter is "conclusively established unless the court, on motion, permits withdrawal or amendment of the admission." OCGA § 9-11-36 (b). A trial court

may permit withdrawal or amendment when [1] the presentation of the merits of the action will be subserved thereby and [2] the party who obtained the admission fails to satisfy the court that the withdrawal or amendment will prejudice him in maintaining his action or defense on the merits.

Id. (citing OCGA § 9-11-36 (b). This statutory provision vests the trial court with broad discretion to permit withdrawal of the admission, and the trial court's ruling on this issue will only be reversed upon a showing of abuse of discretion. Turner v. Mize, 280 Ga.App. 256, 257 (1) (633 S.E.2d 641) (2006).

         "If the movant satisfies the court on the first prong, the burden is on the respondent to satisfy the second prong. Both prongs must be established[.]" (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Fulton County v. SOCO Contracting Co., Inc., 343 Ga.App. 889, 897 (2) (a) (808 S.E.2d 891) (2017). The first requirement of this test

is not perfunctorily satisfied. . . and the desire to have a trial, standing alone, is not sufficient to satisfy the test. If the burden of proof on the subject matter of the request for admission is on the requestor, the movant is required to show the admitted request either can be refuted by admissible evidence having a modicum of credibility or is ...

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