LaClair v. Silberline Mfg. Co., Inc.

Decision Date21 August 1979
Citation393 N.E.2d 867,379 Mass. 21
PartiesJeannette V. LaCLAIR, Individually and as administratrix, v. SILBERLINE MANUFACTURING CO., INC., et al. 1
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

John M. Griffin, Worcester (Walter J. Avis, Jr., Worcester, with him), for plaintiff.

Alfred Sigel, Boston, for Silberline Mfg. Co., Inc.

John A. Bowen, Fitchburg, for Robert E. Lewis & another.

Lawrence R. Levinson, Boston, for Mary Cocuzzo.


HENNESSEY, Chief Justice.

On May 17, 1973, Joseph W. LaClair was severely burned when an explosion and fire occurred at the factory of his employer, Marian Plastics, Inc., of Leominster. Although he was rushed to a hospital, LaClair's injuries proved fatal and he died nine days later. Seeking recovery for her husband's conscious suffering and wrongful death, the plaintiff, Jeannette V. LaClair, brought these actions both individually and as administratrix of LaClair's estate.

As amended, the complaint alleges that LaClair's injuries and death were attributable to the Silberline Manufacturing Co.'s negligent sale and defective manufacture of aluminum powder, the latter act being in breach of express and implied warranties under the Uniform Commercial Code, G.L c. 106, §§ 2-314 2-318. It is further alleged that LaClair's injuries and death were caused by the negligent acts and omissions of Marian Plastics, Inc., Robert E. Lewis, Elizabeth D. Lewis, and Mary Cocuzzo, and that these individual defendants, who were officers or directors of Marian Plastics, failed to carry or provide workmen's compensation insurance, thereby depriving the plaintiff of widow's benefits under G.L. c. 152.

The case was tried to a jury, and at the close of the evidence the judge allowed motions for directed verdicts against the plaintiff and in favor of all the defendants except Marian Plastics. 2 Jeannette LaClair appeals the allowance of these motions and subsequent entry of judgment. We transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

It is our opinion that all of the directed verdict motions, except one, were correctly allowed. For the reasons discussed below, we believe that the judge erred in directing a verdict against the plaintiff and in favor of Robert E. Lewis. The evidence presented at trial, we conclude, was sufficient for a jury to find Robert E. Lewis liable in negligence for his failure to obtain workmen's compensation coverage. Accordingly, we remand this cause of action to the Superior Court for retrial.

We summarize those facts most favorable to the plaintiff. See Everett v. Bucky Warren, Inc., --- Mass. ---, ---, A 380 N.E.2d 653 (1978), and cases cited. For approximately seventeen years Joseph LaClair was employed by Marian Plastics, Inc., a small company in the business of manufacturing and coloring plastics to the specifications of its customers. At the time of his death LaClair was the supervisor in charge of plant production and was earning between $200 and $300 a week. During the late afternoon of May 17, 1973, LaClair was involved in the production of a silver-colored plastic. As part of this fabrication process, aluminum powder or pigment was mixed with various colors of polystyrene plastic in order to achieve a desired hue. It was LaClair's job to direct this color matching by emptying paper bags of aluminum powder into a blender which was fifteen feet in height.

As LaClair performed this task on May 17, a static spark allegedly ignited dust that was suspended between him and the floor. An explosion occurred and LaClair was enveloped in fire. Incurring severe burns about the face, hands, arms, back, and legs, LeClair was hurried to Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston where, remaining conscious for almost the entire period of hospitalization, he received treatment until his death on May 26. At the time of the accident LaClair was forty-two years of age; he was survived by a wife, the plaintiff, and three children, the youngest then being two years old.

After the fire Marian Plastics went out of business. Its plant had been completely destroyed by the fire, and the corporation was ten months behind in rent payments and substantially in debt. The firm had failed to carry either fire or workmen's compensation insurance. 3 Robert E. Lewis was its president, treasurer, sole stockholder, as well as the day-to-day manager of company business; his wife, Elizabeth D. Lewis, was a director of the corporation, and Mary Cocuzzo, his sister, held the office of clerk.

In addition to these facts, it was disclosed at trial by Robert E. Lewis that Marian Plastics had made frequent, although not recent, purchases from Silberline Manufacturing Co., and that the aluminum powder in use at the time of the fire had been obtained from Silberline. Testimony from Francis R. Hankard, a chemist and the assistant chief of the chemical laboratory of the Commonwealth's Department of Public Safety, further indicated that the aluminum powder that LaClair was handling immediately before the fire had been "dry," 4 although, according to Lewis, powder moistened with twenty per cent mineral oil was the kind that had been ordered from Silberline. Hankard subsequently offered the opinion that if dispersed in the air aluminum powder could cause an explosion, and that the pouring of aluminum powder without mineral oil from a paper bag could itself produce an electrostatic charge that might trigger such a blast.

State police Detective-Lieutenant Raymond G. Roy was also called as a witness by the plaintiff. An inspector in the State fire marshal's office, Roy had investigated the Marian Plastics fire. In reporting his findings to the court, Roy was prepared to state his opinion that the cause of the fire and explosion was the ignition of a quantity of aluminum dust which had become suspended in the air while LaClair was pouring aluminum powder into the blender. 5 After voir dire, however, the judge refused to allow this portion of his testimony. Richard Smith, LaClair's coworker and the only eyewitness to the accident, testified after Roy and near the close of the trial. Although he evidently did not see the spark that allegedly led to the explosion, Smith stated that he observed silvery, powdery dust in LaClair's work area immediately before the conflagration.

Other evidence adduced at trial showed that the plant's sprinkler system failed to operate during the fire, that the lighting in the factory was not dustproof, and that no efforts had been made to provide company employees with safety clothing.

On appeal, the plaintiff contends that the judge erred in allowing all motions for directed verdicts against her. We consider these claims separately with respect to each defendant.

1. Robert E. Lewis. Two actions are alleged against Robert Lewis: (1) that he negligently failed to obtain workmen's compensation insurance in behalf of his employees, and (2) that he likewise failed to provide them with a safe place to work. We begin our examination with the first claim.

Since 1943 the Workmen's Compensation Act, G.L. c. 152, has been compulsory for most employees in the Commonwealth. 6 See G.L. c. 152, § 1. See generally L. Locke Workmen's Compensation §§ 21-27 (1968). If an employer is in a compulsory category, the statute demands that provision be made for payment to employees of the compensation guaranteed by the Act either by insurance with a private insurer or by the employer's own qualification as a self-insurer. G.L. c. 152, § 25A. The penalties may be harsh for those employers who fail to comply with their duties under the Act. Where an employer neglects to provide coverage and an accident occurs, it may be sued in a civil action for the full scope of tort damages; 7 most importantly, during such action, the employer loses the ability to assert the common law defenses of fellow servant, assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, and the further defense that the employee's injury, if arising in the course of employment, did not result from negligence or other fault of the employer. G.L. c. 152, §§ 66-67. Compliance with the Act's mandate is further enforced by a statutory fine of not more than $500 and imprisonment for not more than one year for employers who fail to provide required coverage. G.L. c. 152, § 25C. Should the employer be a corporation, its president or treasurer, or both, may be personally liable for this criminal punishment. Id.

What these statutory provisions reveal, and what this court has often recognized, 8 is that the Workmen's Compensation Act is a humanitarian measure designed to provide adequate financial protection to the victims of industrial accidents. There can be little doubt that without the benefits provided by the statute, as enforced through compulsory insurance, many injured employees and their families would be forced to shoulder by themselves large portions of the costs of job-related accidents. See Friedman & Ladinsky, Social Change and the Law of Industrial Accidents, 67 Colum.L.Rev. 50 (1967). With workmen's compensation, the employee and the employee's family acquire a limited, although substantial, right to be insured against the grievous financial impact that may result from injury in the workplace.

Having observed the important function that workmen's compensation plays in the expectations of most workers, we return to the plaintiff's claim that the defendant Robert Lewis was negligent in not providing such coverage to the employees. As in all negligence cases, the trier of fact is to ask how a person of ordinary prudence would act in similar circumstances. Goldstein v. Gontarz, 364 Mass. 800, 805-806, 309 N.E.2d 196 (1974). Restatement (Second) of Torts §§ 283, 298 (1965). W. Prosser, Torts § 34 (4th ed. 1971). Given this principle, we believe that the judge erred by directing a verdict against ...

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