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Negligence claim against GM, contractor to continue after deadly explosion

December 4, 2017

A negligence claim against General Motors and two independent contractors stemming from a deadly explosion at a Grant County GM plant will continue after a district court judge denied in part the defendants’ motions for summary judgment.

James Gibson was an employee of Quaker Chemical Corporation, an independent contractor of GM, in July 2014 when he was killed in an explosion at GM’s Marion plant. The explosion was caused by a mix of two incompatible chemicals, Onyxide 200 and C2188, a chemical manufactured and supplied by ChemTreat, Inc.

The chemicals were mixed together in an open cooling tower welder water system after Gibson consulted with Hank Pietras, a ChemTreat employee who served as Quaker’s subject-matter expert on chemical compatibility. Gibson sent an email to Pietras in December 2013 asking if it would be safe to add Onyxide 200 to a cooling tower that already contained C2188, and Gibson indicated that mixture would not be a problem. He also indicated Gibson could add all of the Onyxide 200 into the C2188 at once, rather than spreading it out.

A new pump was then purchased and installed to pump the Onyxide 200 into the cooling tower at a faster rate, but both the combination of the chemicals and the rate of flow from the new pump were identified as contributing factors in the deadly explosion. Additionally, Pietras later admitted he did not consult the Material Safety Data Sheets before responding to Gibson’s email. According to a Friday opinion, the sheets advised against combing the two chemicals that led to the explosion.

Gibson’s estate filed a claim for negligence against GM, ChemTreat and Caravan Facilities Management, LLC, the company that installed the new pump to increase the flow of Onyxide 200 into the cooling tower. All three defendants moved for summary judgment, but Indiana Southern District Court Judge Tanya Walton Pratt agreed only to dismiss the claims against Caravan.

Writing in a Friday opinion in the case of Estate of James Gibson v. ChemTreat, Inc., General Motors, LLC and Caravan Facilities Management, LLC, 1:15-cv-01562, Pratt determined she could not grant GM’s motion for summary judgment for two central reasons.

First, a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether the Hazardous Materials Control Committee was required to approve all new uses of existing chemicals, in addition to approving the use of all new chemicals, Pratt said. In this case, Onyxide 200 was an existing chemical that was used in a new way when it was added to the cooling tower, but the HMCC did not give approval for that new use.

Second, there is also an issue of material fact as to whether GM controlled the HMCC, Pratt said. GM argued its contract with Quaker required Quaker, not GM, to request an HMCC review if necessary.

“Subjecting Quaker, the chemical manager contractor, to seek and obtain final approval on chemical uses from HMCC, an alleged General Motors entity, would be a significant restriction on the independent contractor relationship between General Motors and Quaker,” Pratt wrote. “…These factual disputes are determinative on the elements of duty, breach, and proximate cause. The Court cannot conclude at this stage that General Motors is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.”

Pratt also denied ChemTreat’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing with Gibson’s estate that “there are various legal doctrines that create a duty for ChemTreat under the circumstances of this case including the (Webb v. Jarvis, 575 N.E. 2d 992, 995 (Ind. 1991)) factors.” Specifically, the judge determined ChemTreat created an assumption of duty when it entered into a contract for Pietras to serve as Quaker’s subject-matter expert. In this role, Pietras frequently visited the plant “to analyze the water and provide recommendations on the water in the welder water system,” she said.

However, Pratt dismissed with prejudice the estate’s claims against Caravan, finding Caravan installed the new pump at Gibson’s directions, then relinquished control over the welder water cage. Additionally, Caravan had no experience that would have enabled the company to opine on whether the two chemicals could be mixed together, she said.

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