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Tinch v. Video Industrial Services

March 17, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Smith, Judge.

Appeals by plaintiff and defendant Hendon Engineering Associates, Inc., from order entered 5 October 1995 by Judge John M. Gardner in Mecklenburg County Superior Court. The appeals were originally heard in the Court of Appeals 21 October 1996 and dismissed as interlocutory on 5 November 1996. Tinch v. Video Industrial Services, 124 N.C. App. 391, 477 S.E.2d 193 (1996). The Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed the dismissal of plaintiff's appeal and remanded to the Court of Appeals on 5 December 1997. Tinch v. Video Industrial Services, Inc., 347 N.C. 380, 493 S.E.2d 426 (1997). Heard in the Court of Appeals on remand 9 February 1998.

This case arises out of plaintiff Frederick Tinch's (plaintiff) work-related accident on a job site in Asheville, North Carolina. The Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County (MSD) contracted with Hendon Engineering Associates, Inc. (Hendon), to perform engineering work on the district's sewer lines. Hendon subcontracted part of the project to Video Industrial Services, Inc. (defendant). Plaintiff was hired as a temporary laborer by Western Temporary Services, Inc., and assigned on 30 May 1991 to work for defendant on the MSD project.

Defendant's contract with Hendon provided that defendant would assist with the evaluation of the sewer system. Defendant performed its work in stages, section by section. Each section of sewer pipe, which ran approximately 300 to 500 feet, was cleaned and videotaped by defendant. The videotaping was performed by a sort of "dragging operation." A camera was lowered into a manhole and hooked to a cable which was connected to an electrically powered winch used to coil the cable. The winch was located on the ground above a more distant manhole. The camera was then dragged through the sewer pipe which provided a videotape of the inside of the sewer line. While plaintiff testified there was an emergency power switch on the winch, plaintiff's mechanical engineering expert and defendant's foreman on the project testified there was not an emergency power switch on the winch.

On 7 June 1991, the day of the accident, plaintiff was assigned to watch the winch during the videotaping and make sure the cable wound on the winch evenly, or, as stated by the witnesses, to make sure it did not "bunch up." As plaintiff reeled the cable in to bring the camera up, the cable began to "bunch up" on the winch's spool. Plaintiff struck the cable with his gloved hand in order to stop the bunching. The second or third time he did this, his glove caught on a frayed section of the cable and plaintiff was unable to pull his hand out of the glove or to reach the emergency switch. Plaintiff was pulled into the winch, which crushed his right hand, arm and several vertebrae, and rendered him a quadriplegic.

Plaintiff's evidence tended to show that plaintiff, who was 29 years old at the time of the accident, had little formal and no technical education. His work experience prior to being hired by defendant consisted of jobs in fast food restaurants. In addition, he had never previously worked around machinery. Jackson T. Morgan, defendant's foreman on the project, testified he had not worked with plaintiff before the day of the accident, did not train plaintiff, and did not know who did. Plaintiff testified he was not instructed what to do if the cable "bunched up" and was not warned of the dangers associated with the winch's operation. He also testified he had previously seen another employee strike the cable when the cable became "bunched up." Though he was tending the winch by himself on the day of the accident, plaintiff testified he had always seen two people tending the winch on prior occasions. Plaintiff's evidence also tended to show defendant previously experienced problems with the winch involved in plaintiff's accident, including cable coming off the spool or "bunching up."

In an affidavit and again in deposition testimony, plaintiff's expert, Russell Charles Lindsay, a mechanical engineer, opined that the operation of a winch or other similar piece of equipment was an inherently dangerous activity. He further stated that the specific winch being used violated several OSHA regulations with respect to a winch; it was without a switch; without guards at points where workers or passers-by could be caught up and drawn into the winch, and the operator, that is the person controlling the winch, was in a truck which was a substantial distance from the winch itself and where he could not see Mr. Tinch, who was tending the winch. . . . The Video Industrial people responsible set up the winch operation in such a way that was certain the cable would "bunch up" on one end of the spool, and where it was certain the winch tender, Mr. Tinch, would have to use some means to keep the cable from bunching up . . . . Given the situation that existed, the likelihood of an injury got to the point where it was substantially certain to occur.

However, plaintiff testified he was aware of the danger of touching the cable while the winch was operating and admitted he could have simply unplugged the machine in order to straighten the cable. Further, in an affidavit, John L. Kulbitskas, defendant's manager, stated that he was not aware of any injuries relating to the use and operation of winches owned by defendant or anyone else in the 24 years he had been employed by defendant, except for one employee dropping the end of a winch on his foot and one employee cutting his hand on a fire hydrant while setting up a winch. The winch involved in plaintiff's accident, which had been in use for at least ten years prior to 7 June 1991, had never been involved in any other incident involving personal injury. Kulbitskas also stated that the winch involved in plaintiff's accident and other substantially similar winches had been used by defendant for over 25,000 man-days without injury prior to 7 June 1991, and that defendant had never been issued an OSHA citation for any reason.

Plaintiff brought this action against defendant alleging that defendant intentionally engaged in conduct which was substantially certain to cause serious injury or death by requiring plaintiff to work with a winch without adequate training or instruction and by using equipment that violated OSHA regulations and other safety standards. The trial court granted defendant's subsequent motion for summary judgment.

On appeal, plaintiff contends the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of defendant. He argues that his forecast of evidence meets the standard set forth in Woodson v. Rowland, 329 N.C. 330, 407 S.E.2d 222 (1991), and demonstrates that defendant intentionally engaged in conduct substantially certain to cause injury to plaintiff or anyone else in his position.

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that any party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1A-1, Rule 56(c) (1990). "`In ruling on the motion, the court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmovant, and the slightest doubt as to the facts entitles him to a trial.'" Bartlett v. Jacobs, 124 N.C. App. 521, 525, 477 S.E.2d 693, 696 (1996) (citation omitted), disc. review denied, 345 N.C. 340, 483 S.E.2d 161 (1997).

The Workers' Compensation Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 97-9 and 10.1 (1991), has traditionally provided the sole remedy for an employee injured on the job as a result of an accident. Rose v. Isenhour Brick & Tile Co., 344 N.C. 153, 155, 472 S.E.2d 774, 775 (1996). However, in Woodson, our Supreme Court held that:

hen an employer intentionally engages in misconduct knowing it is substantially certain to cause serious injury or death to employees and an employee is injured or killed by that misconduct, that employee, or the personal representative of the estate in case of death, may pursue a civil action against the employer. Such misconduct is tantamount to an intentional tort, and civil actions based thereon are not barred by the exclusivity provisions of the Act.

329 N.C. at 340-41, 407 S.E.2d at 228. "Substantial certainty is more than a possibility or substantial probability of serious injury but is less than actual certainty." Regan v. Amerimark Bldg. Products, Inc., __ N.C. App. __, __, 489 S.E.2d 421, 423 (1997), aff'd, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (filed 6 March 1998).

We believe the facts of the instant case are analogous to those of Powell v. S & G Prestress Co., 114 N.C. App. 319, 442 S.E.2d 143 (1994), aff'd per curiam, 342 N.C. 182, 463 S.E.2d 79 (1995). In Powell, plaintiff's decedent was hired by defendant as a temporary employee whose duties included attaching reinforcing bars to forming beds used in constructing concrete elements. Id. at 321, 442 S.E.2d at 144. The two forming beds ran parallel to each other and were straddled by an overhead crane. Id. Defendant's policy was that the crane was not to be moved without a signal person directing its movement; however, defendant did not train its employees in signaling or designate any of its employees as signal people. Id. at 321-22, 442 ...

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