Little v. Liquid Air Corp.
|26 October 1994
|Prod.Liab.Rep. (CCH) P 14,081 Wilma LITTLE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. LIQUID AIR CORPORATION, Chevron Chemical Company, and Victor Manufacturing Company, Defendants-Appellees. Linda CARTER, Mother and Next Friend of Anidra Catrone Carter, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. LIQUID AIR CORPORATION, Chevron Chemical Company, and Victor Manufacturing Company, Defendants-Appellees.
|U.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit
Michael T. Lewis, Pauline S. Lewis, Lewis & Lewis, Clarksdale, MS, for Little and Carter.
John L. Low, IV, Watkins & Eager, Jackson, MS, for Liquid Air.
Frank W. Hunger, Marian S. Alexander, Lake, Tindall, Hunger & Thackston, Greenville, MS, for Chevron.
W. Swan Yerger, Gene D. Berry, Heidelberg, Woodliff & Franks, Jackson, MS, for Victor Mfg.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.
In this products liability case, we hold that the district court appropriately and fairly granted summary judgment for the defendants. The plaintiffs are the heirs of Marvin Joe Little and Charles Carter. Little and Carter were experienced welders working in the wingtank of a barge. At some point, a gas hose leading to their welding torch developed a leak. The welding torch was manufactured by defendant Victor Manufacturing Company; the gas was manufactured by defendant Chevron Chemical Company and sold by defendant Liquid Air Corporation. The plaintiffs contend that, because of nasal fatigue, Little and Carter did not smell the gas, and that Carter lit a cigarette, causing an explosion that resulted in their deaths. 1 The heirs assert that Chevron and Liquid Air are liable because the warning accompanying the gas failed to warn of nasal fatigue; and that Victor is liable because a defective torch caused a "flashback" and a tear in the gas hose line, which resulted in the gas leak, which was a proximate cause of the deaths. When these allegations were put to the test of summary judgment, however, the plaintiffs failed to come forward with any evidence supporting their theory of recovery, that is, evidence that Little and Carter actually suffered nasal fatigue and that nasal fatigue bore a causal connection to their deaths; they likewise failed to establish liability against Victor. In our opinion today, we emphasize that summary judgment should be granted and will be affirmed by this court when the nonmoving party fails to meet its burden to come forward with facts and law demonstrating a basis for recovery that would support a jury verdict. We thus reject the reasoning of the panel and affirm the district court.
In July 1988, Marvin Joe Little and Charles Carter were employed by Mainstream, Inc. where they were cleaning the wingtanks of a barge. 2 Both Little and Carter were experienced welders who, according to their employer, had been properly trained and instructed as to the proper use of propylene gas. In their work, they were using a cutting torch manufactured by defendant Victor. The torch was attached to two hoses, one for oxygen and one for propylene gas, both of which were connected to tanks on the main deck of the barge. The propylene gas was manufactured by Chevron, which supplied it to Liquid Air, which provided it to Mainstream through a distributor. Prior to distribution by Chevron, the propylene gas was odorized with ethyl mercaptan, which gives the gas the smell of rotten eggs.
Chevron had sold the propylene gas to Liquid Air in bulk tank truckloads and, with each delivery, provided Liquid Air with Chevron's Material Safety Data Sheet ("MSDS") that included the following warning:
Precautions if Material is Released or Spilled: Eliminate all sources of ignition in vicinity of spill or released vapor. Evacuate the area immediately and do not allow anyone to return until it is safe to do so. Persons entering the area to correct the problem and determine whether it is safe for normal activities to resume must comply with all instructions in Special Protective Information. 3
When Liquid Air sold the propylene gas to Mainstream under its own name through a distributor, it was accompanied by Liquid Air's MSDS that provided in part:
STEPS TO BE TAKEN IN CASE MATERIAL IS RELEASED OR SPILLED: Evacuate all personnel from affected area. Use appropriate protective equipment. Do not get liquid in eyes, on skin or clothing. Shut off source of leak if possible. Protect from ignition. Ventilate area thoroughly. If leak is in user's equipment, be certain to purge piping with an inert gas prior to attempting repairs. If leak is in container or container valve, contact the closest Liquid Air Corporation location.
Although Little and Carter were never specifically advised that propylene gas could cause nasal fatigue, every Mainstream employee who testified stated that he knew to evacuate the wingtank if they smelled gas or had a leak.
On July 8, 1988, Little and Carter returned from lunch at approximately 12:30 and climbed into the No. 9 wingtank to continue their work. The wingtank hatch was a manhole approximately 18 to 20 inches in diameter, and a part of that hatch was occupied with a ventilation fan. Earnest Hughes, a co-worker of Little and Carter, walked to the hatch of the No. 9 wingtank some few minutes after returning from lunch and was summoned by Little to get the torch and hose out of the wingtank because the hose was leaking gas. At that time, Carter was back into the wingtank so far that Hughes could not see him and Little was partway down the ladder leading into the fourteen-foot deep wingtank. Little was into the wingtank--his head beneath the hatch about a foot or two--when he told Hughes that there was a hole in the torch's gas line.
Hughes pulled the torch and gas lines out of the wingtank and then laid them on the deck of the barge. He noticed the hole in the gas line. Little, still on the ladder in the hole, then told Hughes to get a repair kit to fix the hose. Hughes left to get the repair kit and, about half a minute later, heard a noise. When he looked back, he saw the fan--which had been attached at the top of the hatch--being blown into the air and then saw Little being propelled out of the wingtank. Hughes ran for help and cut all the gas off. Little died immediately and Carter died several days later as a result of burns that he received in the explosion.
The families of Carter and Little initiated actions for damages resulting from the explosion. The actions were consolidated and, after some initial discovery, the complaints stated claims against Victor, Chevron, and Liquid Air. In the amended complaint, 4 the plaintiffs alleged that
On July 8, 1988, Marvin Joe Little and co-employee Charles Carter were working in the hold of a barge doing repair work, including the use of a cutting and welding torch manufactured by Victor. Little was also using propylene (Fuel Gas) manufactured by Chevron and distributed and sold by Liquid Air. The hold was an enclosed area below decks of the barge constructed for the purpose of buoyancy. Except for a single hatch, there was no ingress or egress to this hold. Little and Carter discovered a gas leak and decided to remove the torch from the hold to repair the hose. A short time after the hose was removed, no longer smelling the gas and believing the area to be safe, Carter lit a cigarette. This source of ignition led to an explosion of the propylene gaseous mixture which blasted Little's body through the hatchway of the hold, killing him instantly. Carter was seriously burned by the explosion and died several days later.
With respect to defendant Victor, the amended complaint alleged that the gas leak was caused by the "defective and negligent design of the torch"; specifically, the torch was defective in that it had a leaking O-ring and a leaking check valve, which defects caused a flashback that lead to a leak in the gas hose. The amended complaint further alleged that the propylene gas manufactured and distributed by Chevron and Liquid Air was defective and unreasonably dangerous because
exposure to this gas leads to nasal fatigue to the extent that a worker cannot reliably detect this gas by smell. At the time he lit the cigarette, Carter could no longer smell the gas because of nasal fatigue. Both Carter and Little were unaware of the propensity of Defendants' gas product to cause nasal fatigue and were further unaware that exposure to this gas reduces or eliminates the ability to smell the gas. 5
After the parties had engaged in discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment. 6 The plaintiffs responded, urging that they should be allowed to amend their complaint to assert different theories of liability and that, even without the proposed amended complaint, there was sufficient evidence from which a jury could reach a verdict in their favor. In a well-reasoned opinion, the district court granted the motions and dismissed the plaintiffs' claims. The district court first held that Chevron and Liquid Air were entitled to the bulk seller/sophisticated purchaser defense. With respect to Chevron and Liquid Air, the district court also held that the plaintiffs had failed to present proof of the inadequacy of the warnings and the causative nexus between the warning and the injury suffered. The district court finally held that the plaintiffs had failed to offer proof that the defective Victor torch was the proximate cause of their injury.
The panel 7 first held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the plaintiffs' motion to amend their complaint. 8 952 F.2d at 845-47. Next, observing that summary judgment is rarely appropriate in products liability cases, the panel held that the burden did not shift to the plaintiffs to produce summary...
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