Tragic Workplace Accident Provides Insight Into Duty of Care

A former employee of the Mansfield, LA, branch of the International Paper Company, met with a fatal accident while on the job. While repairing a valve on the platform surrounding the top of a whitewater tank, he fell through the access opening and into the tank.

Access opening covers are not rooted firmly to the tank and are known to become dislocated if the tank contains overpressurized liquid, or if the liquid and debris overflow. Evidence in the form of photographs show that debris had accumulated around the access opening that the deceased had fallen into, indicating that the opening may have been dislodged before he had fallen into the tank. As a result of the incident, the widow of the deceased filed suit against the manager of the Mansfield paper mill and the engineering company that designed and constructed parts of the whitewater tank that the employee fell into.

The engineering company, Stebbins, had a contract with International Paper Company to inspect the durability of its whitewater tanks at many of its locations worldwide. The inspections conducted by Stebbins brought knowledge that some whitewater tanks were over-pressurized and were overflowing. The victims’ family contended that Stebbins’ knowledge of this hazard created a duty on the part of Stebbins to inform the International Paper company of the unsafe practice. The issue, however, was that Stebbins had no such inspection contract with the Mansfield paper mill where the deceased met with his accident.

The problem in this case for the victim’s family was that the duty of care on the part of Stebbins did not involve the material issues in this particular case. This distinguishing factor between what Stebbins’ contract with the International Paper Company actually required the engineering company to do, and what the plaintiff was filing suit against Stebbins for, prevented Stebbins from liability for the unfortunate death.

Because of this gap in liability, Stebbins was found to have no duty to the employee. A duty of care is a legal obligation which is imposed on an individual, requiring that they adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. In this case, the plaintiff argued that Stebbins owed a legal obligation to the employee because Stebbins knew of the hazardous conditions imposed by the dislodging of access opening covers when the tanks became over-pressurized or overfilled. Generally, a duty of care to another is only present within direct relationships such as that between family members: a mother has a duty to her child to make sure the child crosses the street safely. A duty of care is also present in contractual relationships, as of that between an employer and an employee. There is also a duty of care that is formed when a third party begins to help another in need. Once the third party begins to help, he cannot leave the scene until he finishes aiding the person in need. If these direct relationships are not present, a duty may be imposed by the law. In this case, Stebbins did not have any direct relationship to the victim as there was not a contractual relationship between Stebbins and the International Paper Company in Mansfield.

There was also no duty imposed by the law. A Louisiana Supreme Court case had held that in order to find a duty in such a situation, “some proof of positive undertaking” for work place safety is required, stating that “neither mere concern with nor minimal contact about safety matters creates a duty to create a safe working environment for employees of a subsidiary corporation.” In other words, a parent corporation must clearly undertake the goal of providing work place safety for its subsidiary corporation as its primary concern, in order for a duty of care to be found.

In this case, there is no evidence that Stebbins positively undertook any duty to ensure the safety of the employees of the International Paper Company. Stebbins was merely responsible for inspecting the structure of whitewater tanks when requested by the International Paper Company to do so, after a plant had shut down.

Therefore, the Court held that Stebbins had no duty of care to the employee, leaving the family with no relief in this particular case. This is an incredibly difficult situation and is extremely saddening for the victim’s family. It does, however, help explain key components of the law that must be met for recovery to take place. In finding out how the law handles situations, we can explore the nature in which responsibility is apportioned and, in all instances possible, get justice for those impacted.

In cases like these, in which an individual is looking for relief from a big corporation, it is important to be represented by competent attorneys—attorneys from the Berniard Law Firm— who will make sure that you receive the relief you deserve.