A woman who was burned in a propane cloud explosion at work in 2016 has confidentially settled a negligent installation and maintenance lawsuit for $7.5 million, her attorneys report.
Ryan Langley and Charles Hodge of Hodge & Langley Law Firm in Spartanburg report that the 45-year-old woman, whose name was withheld, was filling a propane tank on the forklift she was operating when the hose caught the forklift wheel and separated from the dispensing station tank, causing a propane cloud to form. The catalytic converter on the forklift ignited the cloud, even though the forklift’s ignition was off. Langley said his client had performed the task multiple times before without incident.
The dispensing station did not have a pull-away or quick disconnect that could have prevented the propane cloud from forming, Hodge and Langley said.
The woman suffered severe burns to her face, requiring treatment at the JMS Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia, and multiple surgeries to correct scarring. The $7.5 million settlement includes approximately $1.5 million in special damages to account for her medical expenses.
Langley and Hodge said the case was complicated by the propane company’s allegations that their client’s employer had either removed the pull-away or quick-disconnect device on the dispensing station, or altered it. An indemnity agreement between the employer and the propane company further complicated the issue of liability and implicated the exclusivity provision of workers’ compensation “and there was an open legal question about how, and to what extent, this fact could be presented to the jury,” Langley said.
The defense also raised a component of comparative negligence.
To address the liability issues, Langley and Hodge took as many as 30 depositions in multiple states over three years, many attended by their client. They also conducted focus groups and a mock trial that gave them the confidence that most of the comparative issues would be overcome if the case did go to a jury.
“The actual completed verdict from the simulated jury trial was a powerful tool at mediation,” Hodge said.
“Most of the time with worker’s comp, and there’s not an agreement between the employer and the third party for indemnification. So did that change the Machin result so the employer could be on the verdict form? And what could we say or not say about the employer’s culpability in the trial?” Langley asked, referencing the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in Machin v. Carus Corporation, which held that when a plaintiff seeks recovery from a person other than her employer for an injury sustained on the job, the jury cannot apportion fault against the employer by placing its name on the verdict form.
Langley said the client was resilient in the face of her injuries and that her positive attitude and composure would have made a positive impression on a jury if the suit had gone to trial.
“She’s a remarkable lady,” Langley said. “I think my partner Charlie and I cried more during the three years of litigation than she did. She’s just tough and strong and got a strong faith in the Lord. When they would scrutinize her in her past workplace incidents and all that, she never batted an eye. She was there in those depositions. She participated every time. She was never particularly blaming of others.”
The settlement, which was reached in August, came after several months of mediation led by Thomas J. Wills of Wills Massalon & Allen in Charleston. The names of the defendant and its attorneys were withheld pursuant to the confidentiality agreement.
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SETTLEMENT REPORT – NEGLIGENT INSTALLATION & MAINTENANCE
Amount: $7.5 million
Injuries alleged: Severe burns
Case name: Withheld
Mediator: Thomas J. Wills of Wills Massalon & Allen in Charleston
Date of settlement: August 2019
Special damages: Approximately $1.5 million for medical expenses
Most helpful experts: Frank E. Hagen, P.E. (fire expert specializing in propane)
Attorneys for plaintiff: Charles Hodge and Ryan Langley of Hodge & Langley Law Firm in Spartanburg
Attorneys for defendant: Withheld