Georgia Court of Appeals Dismisses Negligence Lawsuit Over Chemical Fire

Does a company admit negligence when its spokesman apologizes for an accident on its property? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently considered such a case and held that such an apology is not, without additional evidence, enough to sustain a lawsuit against the company. The appeals court affirmed a trial judge’s decision to award summary judgment to the company.

Law v. BioLab, Inc.

In the early morning hours of May 25, 2004, a fire erupted at the BioLab chemical plant in Rockdale County. BioLab manufactures water treatment products for swimming pools and spas. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the fire occurred in a building that housed “approximately 12.5 million pounds of pool chemicals and oxidizers.” Rockdale County officials ordered a mandatory evacuation for a 1.5-mile radius surrounding the BioLab site.

A resident of the area later claimed he was exposed to harmful gas released by the BioLab fire. He sued BioLab for negligence. In responding to BioLab’s motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff pointed to a statement made by a BioLab executive to a reporter. The executive said, “we want to apologize profusely for the disruption we’ve caused.” The plaintiff maintained this was an admission of liability. BioLab disagreed, and said the plaintiff had presented no evidence suggesting its negligence caused the fire.

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals agreed BioLab was entitled to summary judgment. Presiding Judge John J. Ellington of the Court of Appeals noted in his opinion that while an out-of-court admission by a party may be admissible as evidence of negligence, the executive’s statement in this case was not such an admission. Rather, Judge Elligton described the statement as a “vague public relations apology” made by someone who had no way of knowing whether the company was at fault. Under Georgia law, a statement made by a company’s admission or agent is only admissible if it is related “to what the employee would know because of the employee’s job duties.”

The plaintiff argued that negligence could be inferred from the spokesman’s statement under a legal doctrine known as “res ipsa loquitur.” This is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself,” and under Georgia law, it means, “(1) the injury ordinarily would not occur in the absence of negligence; (2) the injury was caused by an agent or instrument within the defendant’s exclusive control; and (3) the injury was not due to any voluntary action or contribution on plaintiff’s part.” The key is showing that negligence had to be the only possible cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.

The plaintiff could not show that here, Judge Ellington said, because there was no evidence establishing what caused the fire in the first place. The fire may have been the result of arson, act of God, or something other than negligence on the part of BioLab. Furthermore, while the plaintiff presented evidence he suffered from “minimal asthma” and related breathing issues, Judge Ellington noted these may have been caused by other factors–such as the plaintiff’s smoking–other than exposure to chemicals released by the fire.

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