On March 20, the Tennessee Court of Appeals provided some clarity on the impact of employers’ statutory immunity under the Tennessee Workers’ Compensation Law. In Long et. al. v. Quad Power Products, et. al., Case No. E2013-02708-COA-R3-CV, the Plaintiff, Danny Long, was employed as a boilermaker and was injured on the job when a coupling attached to a ball valve failed, causing pressurized air and water to release onto his left arm and shoulder. He underwent multiple surgeries and ultimately his left arm was amputated. Long and his wife brought a product liability suit against several companies allegedly involved in the manufacture or distribution of the ball valve. All but one of these companies was dismissed either voluntarily or based on a lack of personal jurisdiction.
Southern Fluidpower, Inc. remained as a defendant and filed a motion for summary judgment. At the time of the summary judgment motion, Long’s sole remaining claim against Southern was based upon a failure to warn. The investigation of the accident revealed that a coupling attached to the ball valve failed, not the ball valve itself. Plaintiff then amended the Complaint, adding a failure to warn claim—specifically, the failure to warn as to safe pressure levels through the valve to prevent coupling failure. The trial court granted summary judgment on two bases: 1) The ball joint itself did not fail, a coupling installed by Plaintiff’s employer (Alstom Power, Inc.) did, so any possible failure to warn was not the cause in fact of the Plaintiff’s injury; and 2) Alstom’s actions were an intervening cause of Long’s injury.
The Court of Appeals affirmed on both bases. Its reasoning on the first theory was straightforward: the valve did not break, and Plaintiff could not muster enough evidence to show the alleged failure to warn as to safe pressure levels through the valve was the cause of another component’s fracture.
As to the intervening cause defense, Long argued Alstom, as an employer, could not be an intervening cause because it is immune from liability under Tennessee’s Workers’ Compensation Law, § 50-6-108(a). This is a familiar concept to Tennessee practitioners–because of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Ridings v. Ralph M. Parsons Co., 914 S.W. 2d 79, (1996), trial courts cannot assign fault to employers subject to the Workers’ Compensation Law. Because such employers are immune from suit, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held it would be unfair to plaintiffs to permit courts to assign fault to them at trial.
But in this case, the Court of Appeals applied Snyder v. LTG Lufttechnische GmbH, 955 S.W.2d 252 (Tenn. 1997), which limited the reach of Ridings. In Snyder, the Supreme Court held that while immune employers could not be held to be the proximate cause of a plaintiff’s injuries, they could be the cause in fact. The Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the trial court’s holding that Alstom’s actions in using a ball valve it knew had corroded and become difficult to turn, and its negligent design of the test panel on which the valve was installed, were the cause in fact of Long’s injuries, and were not reasonably foreseeable to Southern. For this reason, Alstom’s actions were an intervening cause justifying summary judgment.
The Court of Appeals was careful to note its holding that Alstom’s actions were the cause in fact did not alter Alstom’s immunity from being assigned proximate or legal fault for the accident. Long is simply without a remedy outside of workers’ compensation. This case is an important reminder that Ridings is not insurmountable, and that thorough investigation of an immune employer’s fault remains essential.