Louisiana Court Says Widow of Paper Mill Employee in Mansfield Unable to Recover Damages

The appellate court has affirmed a summary judgment dismissing a widow’s case against Stebbins Engineering and Manufacturing Company. She filed suit after her husband died while he was working at International Paper Company in Mansfield, Louisiana.

An employee died when, while attempting to repair a valve on the platform surrounding a white water tank/tile chest, he fell into the tank. Pulp debris around the opening cover may have been dislodged due to overflow before his fall. Thus, the widow brought suit against the manager of the Mansfield paper mill, International Paper, and Stebbins, which designs and constructs the tanks. Over 20 years ago, it manufactured the tank that the deceased fell into, and Stebbins also inspects tile chests at some of its locations, though not at the Mansfield mill.

Whether the widow had a case or not turned on the legal duties of Stebbins. The widow argued that inspections at other plants provided notice to Stebbins that some of the tile chests were over-pressurized and overflowing, which caused the dislodging of the access opening covers, thereby endangering International Paper employees working around the tanks. She argued this created an obligation for Stebbins to inform International Paper employees about the safety issue.

Stebbins stated that the inspections did not relate to the operation of the tanks. Instead, they were concerned with cracks and structural flaws, but not with the plant’s involvement in over-pressurizing the tanks. Stebbins also argued it had no duty to International Paper or to the deceased, and secondly, the widow’s claim was preempted because five years had already passed.

The court agreed with Stebbins. The manufacturing company did not assume a duty to provide safety advice to International Paper due to its awareness of overflowing tanks while inspecting the integrity of the walls of the tile chests. The appellate court relied on a Supreme Court case considering Louisiana jurisprudence, which requires parties who voluntarily assume duties for workplace safety to perform those duties reasonably and prudently. However, to find that such duties existed, the court required proof of some positive undertaking for workplace safety, not just some concern with safety matters. The court decided here that Stebbins did not positively undertake any obligation to ensure the safety of International Paper employees. Thus, the widow’s claim was dismissed.

The facts of this case are tragic. Unfortunately, liability can often be difficult to prove, especially with a company that is not a direct employer. Finding the best lawyers to bring your case and filing suit quickly, within the preemption period, will increase your chances at getting your claims heard.