In a decision released on Monday, the appeals court affirmed the verdict an Essex County jury awarded at a 2014 trial to the estates of Carlos Diaz, 41, of Paterson, and Victor M. Diaz, Jr., 42, of Hillside, in their lawsuits against North East Linen Supply Company, which operates the facility.
“We further discern no indication that the jury’s verdict represents a miscarriage of justice,” according to the appellate decision.
The verdict was comprised of nearly $1.5 million for Carlos Diaz’s estate and roughly $1.9 million for Victor M. Diaz, Jr.’s estate, the decision states. The men were not related.
The tank — which contained sulfuric acid and various cleaning chemicals — was used to adjust the pH level of wastewater by adding sulfuric acid, thereby making it safe to be drained into the sewer system, the decision states.
On Dec. 1, 2007, the two men were found dead at the bottom of the tank, the decision states.
A medical examiner later determined the workers sustained chemical burns on about half of their bodies, including their faces and eyes, the decision states. The medical examiner concluded the cause of death for both men was “inhalation of chemical fumes,” the decision states.
In response to the accident, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in June 2008 cited North East Linen Supply for multiple safety and health violations, and proposed a total of $79,250 in fines for the combined violations.
During the trial, Peter Aguirre, the facility’s maintenance manager and safety instructor, testified that he had instructed Carlos to clean the tank on Dec. 1, 2007, but told him not to go into the tank, the decision states. Aguirre said he told Victor to help Carlos, but gave him no specific instructions, the decision states.
Aguirre insisted that he never sent any workers into the tank and said the company followed written policies against entering the tank, the decision states.
But Aguirre testified he was aware that two other workers, Fernando Martinez and Eddie Cruz, had entered the tank on two occasions, the decision states.
“Nevertheless, Aguirre never took action to prevent employees from entering the tank, never reported or recorded anything in the personnel files of Martinez or Cruz, and never told any other managers that employees were entering the tank,” the decision states.
According to the decision, the verdict indicates jurors did not believe Aguirre’s account that he told Carlos not to enter the tank and found that the company’s conduct was “a proximate cause” of the men’s deaths.
As part of its appeal of the verdict, North East Linen Supply, which operates a large-scale commercial laundry business, argued the trial judge improperly rejected its claim of being immune from liability under state law, because the deaths did not stem from “any intentional wrong,” the decision states.
The company also claimed the judge should have granted its request to instruct jurors that they could consider whether Carlos and Victor were negligent, the decision states.
But the appellate panel rejected those arguments.
As for the immunity issue, the panel said “a reasonable juror could have deduced Aguirre intended for Carlos and Victor to enter the wastewater tank,” the decision states.
“Moreover, a reasonable juror could have found Aguirre’s credibility was sufficiently impeached to support an adverse inference that he affirmatively instructed Carlos to enter the tank,” the decision states.
The panel added that the trial judge “reasonably found that, absent training, the toxic conditions inside of the tank were ‘more than a fact of life of industrial employment’ at a commercial laundry facility, and ‘plainly beyond anything the Legislature intended the [Act] to immunize,'” the decision states.
The appeals court also found no basis to let the jury consider whether the “two untrained and unsupervised workers were comparatively negligent,” the decision states.
“Plaintiffs’ negligence, if any, arises out of Aguirre’s alleged contrary instructions, and absent appropriate instructions or training, there was insufficient evidence to create a legitimate inference that either plaintiff was negligent and his negligence proximately caused the fatal injuries sustained,” the decision states.
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