Submitted: April 1, 2013
Upon Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.
William D. Fletcher, Esquire of Schmittinger and Rodriguez, P.A., Dover, Delaware; attorney for the Plaintiff.
Kevin J. Connors, Esquire of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, Wilmington, Delaware; attorney for Defendant.
Defendant Clariant Corporation ("Clariant") filed this Motion for Summary Judgment on February 25, 2013. Plaintiff Rocky Stayton ("Plaintiff") filed a memorandum in opposition on March 18, 2013. Based upon the reasons set forth below, Clariant's Motion for Summary Judgment must be granted.
II. Relevant Factual and Procedural Background
Although this case has a protracted procedural history, the salient facts of Plaintiff's injury are not in dispute and can be succinctly recited. On May 20, 2003, Plaintiff, an employee of Clariant, was injured when a four-wheeled pelletizer machine ("Pelletizer No. 10") weighing nearly 1700 pounds toppled over on him while being moved. The accident was allegedly due to defects in the floor and the top-heavy nature of the machine. Stayton suffered injuries to his left leg and hand, and underwent numerous surgeries as a result of the accident.
The chain of ownership of Pelletizer No. 10 is as follows. The original owner of Pelletizer No. 10 was American Enka Corp. ("Enka"), who purchased the machine in 1961 from its manufacturer, Cumberland Engineering Co. At some point after 1970, Plastic Materials Co., Inc. ("Plastic Materials") purchased Pelletizer No. 10 and used the machine in the same manufacturing facilities where Stayton was injured. In May 1996, PMC Acquisition Co., Inc. ("PMC Acquisition"), purchased the business assets of Plastic Materials. Pelletizer No. 10 was among those assets purchased by PMC Acquisition. On December 20, 1996, PMC Acquisition merged with Polymer Color North America, Inc. ("Polymer Color"). Pursuant to the merger agreement, Polymer Color was the surviving corporation. On December 31, 1997, Polymer Color, a Delaware corporation, merged with Clariant, a New York corporation. Clariant was the surviving corporation. In 1999, Stayton began his employment with Clariant.
Pelletizer No. 10 was manufactured in 1961 by Cumberland Engineering Company, Inc. ("Cumberland"). Cumberland designed and manufactured the model with two swivel casters and two fixed casters, as the machine was designed to be moved short distances. Pelletizer No. 10 was furnished with V-grooved track casters for use with a floor-mounted track system. It was intended to be moved only along its long axis. At some point between 1961 and the day of Plaintiff's injury, Pelletizer No. 10's fixed casters were replaced with two swivel casters of differing sizes. Both parties' respective engineering experts agree that this modification decreased Pelletizer No. 10's stability and made it more prone to tip over.
Plaintiff, even after extensive discovery, has failed to uncover which corporation was responsible for the alleged modifications. Few maintenance records were kept, and the first date of entry in the machine's maintenance log was not made until 1984. It is not even clear from the record just when and from whom Plastic Materials purchased Pelletizer No. 10. There is no evidence of what changes, if any, were made to Pelletizer No. 10's base and wheel structure between 1961, when the machine was purchased by Enka, and 1970, when Joseph Warnell ("Warnell"), Plastic Materials' owner, purchased it from Enka. Plaintiff deposed several Plastic Materials employees and managers, but they all testified that they had no recollection of any modifications made to the pelletizer's wheel or base during Plastic Materials' ownership of the machine. The record reveals no evidence that the pelletizer was modified between the time that Clariant acquired the machine on December 31, 1997, and Plaintiff's accident on May 20, 2003. Moreover, the record is wholly silent as to whether the pelletizer was modified during the 19-month period that PMC Acquisition and Polymer Color owned the machine.
Plaintiff filed his original complaint in this action on May 19, 2005, naming, among other defendants, Polymer Color, PMC Acquisition, and Plastic Materials.Clariant was joined as a third-party defendant by Mill Pond Properties, Inc. ("Mill Pond"), owner of the premises where the accident occurred. Plaintiff then moved to amend the original complaint to add Clariant as a direct defendant, which Clariant opposed. Plaintiff was granted leave to amend his complaint on the basis that amendments to complaints are liberally granted.
Plaintiff thereafter filed an Amended Complaint containing a new Count IV, which alleged that Polymer Color, by virtue of its purported merger with PMC Acquisition, assumed statutory liability for PMC Acquisition's alleged negligent maintenance, alteration or modification of the pelletizer. The same count also alleged that Clariant, by virtue of its merger with Polymer Color, assumed statutory liability for the alleged negligence of its predecessors, including Polymer Color. In April of 2008, Clariant and Polymer Color filed motions to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint and Amended Complaint. In an order issued on August 29, 2008, the Court granted both motions to dismiss on the basis that the claims against Polymer Color and Clariant were barred by the exclusivity provision of the Worker's Compensation Act. Plaintiff timely filed a motion for Reargument of ...