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The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a $16 million jury award to the family of a maintenance worker at a polyester fiber plant who died following years of asbestos exposure.
Hystron Fibers Inc., owned by defendant CNA Holdings, hired Daniel Construction Co. in 1965 to build a plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. When the plant began operating in 1967, Hystron retained Daniel to provide all maintenance and repair workers at the plant, paying an annual fee and reimbursing the construction company for certain costs, including workers compensation insurance premiums, according to documents in Keene v. CNA Holdings, LLC, filed in Columbia.
Dennis Seay was employed by Daniel and worked various maintenance and repair positions at the plant from 1971 until 1980. Mr. Seay's day-to-day tasks involved maintaining and repairing pumps, valves, condensers and other equipment in the plant’s piping network, which exposed him to asbestos. He eventually developed lung problems, which were later diagnosed as mesothelioma, a cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.
Mr. Seay and his wife sued CNA Holdings — the plant owner’s corporate successor — claiming Hoechst acted negligently in using asbestos and in failing to warn of its dangers.
After Mr. Seay died from mesothelioma, his daughter, Angie Keene, took over the lawsuit as personal representative of his estate. Ms. Keene amended the complaint to add survival and wrongful death causes of action.
Throughout the litigation, CNA Holdings argued Mr. Seay was a statutory employee and that the state’s workers compensation law provided the exclusive remedy for his claims. The circuit court disagreed and denied CNA Holdings' motion for summary judgment.
A Spartanburg County jury awarded Mr. Seay's estate $14 million in actual damages and $2 million in punitive damages. A trial court denied CNA’s summary judgment motion and an appeals court affirmed, finding Mr. Seay was not an employee.
The South Carolina Supreme Court also ruled that Mr. Seay was not a statutory employee of the plant’s owner, noting that Daniel Construction provided workers compensation coverage for Mr. Seay.
The Supreme Court added that the state’s guidance on statutory employees is “certainly not served by granting CNA Holdings immunity for its wrongful conduct.”