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Workman v. Axalta Coating Systems, LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

May 3, 2019

HARRY WORKMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
AXALTA COATING SYSTEMS, LLC, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MICHAEL F. URBANSKI CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Harry Workman was injured by an electric shock received while installing a conveyor system at defendant Axalta Coating Systems, LLC's ("Axalta") facility in Front Royal, Virginia on October 21, 2015. Workman contends that he was shocked because Axalta improperly wired an explosion proof ("XP") plug to the end of an extension cord supplied by him to provide power to Workman's stud welder. While there was little dispute that the electric shock stemmed from a flaw in the extension cord, Axalta contests whether Workman proved that the shock stemmed from faulty wiring of the XP plug as opposed to some unknown infirmity with the extension cord. After a four-day trial, dueling experts, and multiple opportunities to hear Workman, a jury found for Workman and awarded him $473, 295.22 plus prejudgment interest. J. Civ. Action, ECF No. 60.

         This matter is before the court on Axalta's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law and for New Trial, ECF No. 67. Testing conducted by Axalta immediately after Workman was shocked revealed an electrical fault in the extension cord, somewhere between the XP plug wired by Axalta and the rest of the cord supplied by Workman. Workman's expert electrical engineer, Charles Martorana, testified that he ruled out other problems with Workman's extension cord because it worked without flaw before and after the shock to Workman on October 21, 2015. Axalta contends that Martorana's opinion was undermined because Workman could not definitively establish that the extension cord functioned properly after the incident. As such, Axalta argues that that the verdict lacked a legally sufficient basis. Axalta alternatively seeks a new trial, arguing that the verdict was against the great weight of the evidence and was based on a flawed jury instruction.

         Although the eventual whereabouts of the extension cord were not established with certainty, the court concludes that, on balance, Workman presented substantial evidence to support the jury's verdict that Axalta was responsible for the electric shock suffered by Workman. Nor is there any basis to grant the motion for new trial. For the reasons discussed below, the court will DENY Axalta's motions.

         I.

         Workman was tasked with working on a metal conveyor system at the Axalta paint plant. Because his work involved the use of a stud welder, Axalta required the welder to be connected to a power source by means of an XP plug. Because of the distance of the stud welder to the power source, Workman needed to use an extension cord he brought with him to Axalta. Richard Bittner, an Axalta electrician, attached the pigtailed wires on the male end of Workman's extension cord to an XP plug supplied by Axalta. As such, Axalta's liability turns on whether Bittner's wiring was done negligently. Bittner demonstrated for the jury how he wired the XP plug, and testified that it went "together pretty effortlessly." Bittner Trial Test, ECF No. 76, at 39. After the XP plug was attached to a power source, Workman received an electric shock when he touched his unpowered stud welder. Workman collapsed and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

         After the incident, Axalta's David Waddell performed conductivity testing on the extension cord with the XP plug attached. This testing revealed conductivity between ground and hot wires in the extension cord, which was "not the way it should be." Waddell Trial Test, ECF No 73, at 9-10, 17-20. Axalta employees then tried to remove the XP plug from the extension cord, but the XP plug would not unscrew in a normal fashion. Various witnesses testified that, for an unexplained reason, the XP plug was galled, requiring its disassembly by two men using channel lock pliers. Bittner Trial Test, ECF No. 76, at 42-43. The destructive nature of this process wrenched open the XP plug, making it impossible to determine the configuration of its internal wire connections. Waddell Trial Test, ECF No. 73, at 13-14. Significantly, at this point, there was no way to tell from looking at the disassembled XP plug whether it had been correctly wired.

         Workman returned to Axalta the next day, but was too frail to complete his work. Rather, his associate loaded the stud welder and other tools on Workman's truck for his return trip to Illinois. Workman did not inventory his tools when he left Axalta, and did not look to see whether his extension cord was returned to its storage compartment on the stud welder. Upon his return from Axalta, Workman had the stud welder examined by its manufacturer, Nelson Stud Welding, Inc., which found no problem with the welder and it integral power cord.

         As to the extension cord, although Workman did not see the extension cord when he left Axalta, he believed that it was returned to service and functioned without incident. On direct examination, Workman testified as follows:

Q. After you did give the stud welder back to the folks at Nelson, did you reunite it to the designated power cord that had been used before the October 21, 2015 accident?
A. I believe so. The reason I say "I believe so" is because that would have been out in the shop; and when I brought the unit back, my partner immediately put the unit back into service.
Q. Did the extension cord go back in the same bed that it had previously been stored in on that machine?
A. It would had to have been used. We had to actually use the extension cord.
Q. Was it actually used by you after October 21, 2015, after it came back from Nelson?
A. When I was in the shop, yes, I used it.
Q. And did it perform as flawlessly as it had before the accident?
A. We had no problem with it whatsoever.
Q. Since October of 2015, have you used the stud welder with those same extension cords?
A. Definitely.
Q. Ever had any problems since the accident?
A. No, sir.

         Workman Trial Test, ECF ...


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