Appeals court partially overturns lower court ruling in death of Louisiana rail worker

By Elizabeth Young | Apr 2, 2013

NEW ORLEANS – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District has overturned part of a dismissal in a suit stemming from the death of a Louisiana man.

Amy Avery Sampson filed suit against GATX Corporation, GATX employee Clifton Kirby and Honeywell International Inc. after the death of her husband, Shannon Sampson. The suit claimed that the defendants’ negligence caused her husband’s death.

At the time of the underlying incident, Shannon Sampson was employed by GATX in Minden, La. GTAX leases railcars and has one of the largest privately owned railcar fleets in the world. Honeywell  International Inc. is a manufacturer of household and industrial products, including a refrigerant gas known as Genetron 22.

Honeywell used GATX railcars to transport Genetron 22, and the contract between GATX and Honeywell requires that Honeywell return the railcars cleaned and “safe for human entry.”

On March 12, 2010 Shannon Sampson was in charge of a group of three men assigned to inspect and photograph tank cars. Sampson had to enter the cars to take photographs and safety procedures required the employee who entered the cars to be attached to a safety extraction device. On the day of the accident, one of the two extraction devices was being used elsewhere and the other was out of service.

Honeywell had leased the tank car in question Feb. 10, 2010 and cleaned it before returning it to GATX. The company issued a cleaning certificate on Feb. 21, 2010 that the car had been internally cleaned, but failed to specify that nitrogen had been used or indicate that the railcar contained unsafe levels of oxygen.

Honeywell admitted that on the day Sampson entered the car its atmosphere was “incapable of supporting human life.”

After entering the car, Sampson tried to climb back out but “was overcome by the environment inside the car, let go of the ladder and hit his head on the side of the car.” Shannon Sampson ultimately died of asphyxiation.

The defendants requested, and were granted, a summary judgment, dismissing all claims. On appeal, Amy Avery Sampson argued that the district court erred in granting summary judgment in the cases of GATX and Honeywell, but did not name GATX employee Kirby.

In a per curiam opinion, Circuit Judges E. Grady Jolly, Edward C. Prado and Stephen A. Higginson affirmed the district court’s judgment with respect to GATX but took issue with the dismissal of claims against Honeywell.

The panel held that Sampson had provided enough evidence to avoid summary judgment.

Honeywell was obligated to clean the car to the standard of “safe for human entry,” and there was sufficient evidence to create a dispute of material fact that the company was negligent in providing a cleaning certificate.

Additionally, in the appeal Sampson put forth evidence that Honeywell “increased the risk of harm” and Honeywell’s negligence was the “proximate cause” of Shannon Sampson’s death.

The panel warned that there was evidence that Sampson had at least some agency in the accident, but that the degree of that agency should be determined at trial.

The court affirmed the ruling of the district court regarding GATX and Kirby, but reversed in regard to Honeywell. The case has been remanded, and a trial will determine whether a tort duty was breached in the contract between GATX and Honeywell, and whether that breach caused Shannon Sampson’s death.

Case No. 12-30406. 

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