Georgia Court of Appeals Tackles Failure to Inspect in Georgia Sugar Refinery Explosion Case

Industrial WarehouseThe tragic Georgia Sugar Refinery explosion made national news and took the lives of numerous employees. 7 years later, the courts are still struggling with issues in the case. In a recent case, Bing v. Zurich Services Co., the Georgia Court of Appeals addressed whether a company hired to perform inspections of a sugar refinery could be held liable for injuries of workers present at the time of the refinery explosion.

The explosion at issue, which the Court of Appeals described as “catastrophic,” occurred on February 7, 2008. Workers injured as a result of the blast brought suit against multiple defendants, including Zurich Services Corporation. Imperial Sugar Company owned the refinery, and Imperial’s property insurance underwriter contracted Zurich to perform annual inspections at the plant. During the course of an August 2007 inspection, Zurich failed to inspect conveyor belts over which Imperial had recently placed stainless steel covers. Months later, in January 2008, an Imperial plant safety manager warned that the stainless steel covers lead to piling of sugar, posing an explosion risk. This issue ultimately led to the explosion. The injured workers argued the Zurich was liable for failing to inspect the covers, but Zurich moved for summary judgment, arguing that, as a matter of law, it did not owe a duty of reasonable care to the injured workers under the circumstances. The trial court concurred and granted the motion.

On appeal, the workers argued that there existed a genuine issue of material fact related to whether Zurich owed them a duty of care, and thus granting summary judgment in Zurich’s favor was in error. Liability under these circumstances is governed by Section 324A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which provides in pertinent part:

“One who undertakes . . . to render services to another which he should recognize as necessary for the protection of a third person . . . is subject to liability to the third person for physical harm resulting from his failure to exercise reasonable care . . . if (a) his failure . . . increases the risk of such harm, or (b) he has undertaken to perform a duty owed by the other to the third person, or (c) the harm is suffered because of reliance of the other or the third person . . . .”

The workers argued that Zurich owed them a duty because it had undertaken to perform inspection at the refinery. However, the Court of Appeals noted that Zurich did not undertake this inspection on behalf of Imperial or its workers but rather on behalf of Imperial’s insurance underwriter. Accordingly, Zurich did not undertake services it should have, as a matter of law, recognized as necessary for the protection of the third parties. Instead, it rendered services related to the underwriting relationship. In the court’s view, Section 324A does not support a cause of action based on the theory that a party who did not undertake to render services should have. The Court of Appeals relied heavily on a federal court opinion, Manker v. The Zurich Services Corporation, 556 F. App’x. 907 (11th Cir. 2014), which was brought by a distinct group of workers injured in the same explosion. Since there were no issues of material fact related to what services Zurich undertook, the Court of Appeals reasoned that summary judgment in favor of Zurich was appropriate.

Questions related to when one owes a duty of reasonable care to another are often one of law and not of fact. Thus, convincing the Court that liability should lie with a certain party in a case is often as important as ultimately convincing a jury. Negligence may often seem straightforward on the surface, but litigation can often present complications that can be difficult for even seasoned practitioners. Accordingly, if you have been harmed as a result of possible negligence and are considered taking legal action to remedy your injuries, you should deeply consider finding knowledgeable and experienced counsel before bringing your case. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law are well versed in all facets of both state and federal litigation and can provide you with skilled assistance with your possible case. If you would like to know more about the legal options you may have to remedy a possible wrong, do not hesitate to contact us for a complimentary case consultation.

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