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Stayton v. Clariant Corporation

Supreme Court of Delaware

January 2, 2014

ROCKY STAYTON, Plaintiff Below-Appellant,
v.
CLARIANT CORPORATION, Defendant Below-Appellee.

Submitted: December 5, 2013

Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware in and for Kent County C.A. No.05C-05-042

Before BERGER, JACOBS, and RIDGELY, Justices.

ORDER

Henry duPont Ridgely Justice

On this 2nd day of January 2014, it appears to the Court that:

(1) Plaintiff-Below/Appellant Rocky Stayton appeals from a grant of a Motion for Summary Judgment by the Superior Court dismissing his negligence suit against Defendant-Below/Appellee Clariant Corporation ("Clariant"). The claim followed a workplace accident involving a faulty piece of machinery. Stayton raises one claim on appeal. He contends that the Superior Court erred in granting summary judgment when it found that Stayton proffered insufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact. We find no merit to Stayton's claim. As a result, we affirm.

(2) In 2003 while working for Clariant, Stayton was injured when a four-wheeled pelletizer machine ("Pelletizer No. 10") fell over on him. Stayton suffered a number of injuries requiring surgery and additional medical treatment. It is undisputed that a modification to the wheels of Pelletizer No. 10 caused it tip over. Further, both parties agree that this modification occurred after it was manufactured. One of the original owners of Pelletizer No. 10 was Plastic Materials Co., Inc. ("Plastic Materials"), who used the machine in the same manufacturing facility where Stayton was injured. In May 1996, PMC Acquisition ("PMC") purchased the business assets of Plastic Materials. In December 1996, PMC merged with 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.

(3) In his Amended Complaint, Stayton alleged that Plastic Materials, PMC, or Polymer Color altered or modified Pelletizer No. 10, causing it to tip over. The Superior Court originally dismissed the claim as barred by Delaware's Workers' Compensation Act. Stayton appealed that decision to this Court.[1] We reversed and remanded, holding that Stayton's claim was not barred under the dual persona doctrine of the Workers' Compensation Act's exclusivity provision.[2] On remand, Clariant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment after the parties conducted additional discovery. The trial court granted Clariant's motion, finding that Stayton could not present any sufficient evidence for a reasonable juror to conclude that either PMC or Polymer Color negligently modified or maintained the Pelletizer No. 10. This appeal followed.

(4) Stayton contends that the Superior Court erroneously granted Clariant's Motion for Summary Judgment on his negligence claim because he provided circumstantial evidence to create a genuine issue of fact to support either a negligent modification or negligent maintenance theory.[3] We review de novo a trial court's decision to grant summary judgment as to both the facts and the law.[4]A grant of summary judgment under Rule 56(c) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure "cannot be sustained unless there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law."[5] In our review of a summary judgment record, "we are free to draw our own inferences in making factual determinations and in evaluating the legal significance of the evidence."[6] But "we will not draw 'unreasonable inferences' in the nonmoving party's favor."[7] Nevertheless, the factual record, "including any reasonable inferences to be drawn therefrom, must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party."[8]

(5) "Generally speaking, issues of negligence are not susceptible of summary adjudication. It is only when the moving party establishes the absence of a genuine issue of any material fact respecting negligence that summary judgment may be entered."[9] But where the non-moving party has had adequate discovery and cannot show sufficient facts for a judgment as a matter of law, our analysis changes. As we explained in Burkhart v. Davies:

In our view, the plain language of Rule 56(c) mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial. In such a situation, there can be "no genuine issue as to any material fact, " since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party's case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial. The moving party is "entitled to a judgment as a matter of law" because the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of her case with respect to which she has the burden of proof.[10]

We further explained that "[t]here is no issue for trial unless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party."[11] But where "the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted."[12]

(6) The key issue on summary judgment was whether Stayton could show that Clariant, as a successor in interest, caused Stayton's damages because either PMC or Polymer Color had altered the Pelletizer No. 10. Stayton points to circumstantial evidence to establish the existence of the essential element of causation. According to Stayton, Joseph Warnell, the former president of Plastic Materials, "unequivocally stated" that the Pelletizer No. 10 must have been modified under the ownership of either PMC or Polymer Color.[13] But Warnell's deposition does not unequivocally state or otherwise suggest that PMC or Polymer Color altered the Pelletizer No. 10. In relevant part, the deposition testimony identified by Stayton provides:

Q. Some of the photographs that I have seen of this particular pelletizer -- and it could simply be the photograph - - but there seemed to be different wheels on it. Were ...

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