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Dempsey v. General Electric Co.

March 21, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John F. Grady, United States District Judge


This negligence case is before the court for ruling on defendant General Electric Co.'s motion for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment is denied.


In this diversity case,*fn2 plaintiff Alonzo Dempsey ("Dempsey") has sued defendant General Electric Co. ("GE") for negligence, seeking to recover for injuries he sustained on July 7, 2003 while cleaning a reactor at GE's plastics plant in Ottawa, Illinois (the "Ottawa Plant").

At the time of the incident, Dempsey was an employee and agent of Hydrotech, Inc. ("HTI"), a company that GE engaged to perform various tasks at the Ottawa Plant, including high-pressure water blasting. On July 7, 2003, Dempsey and other HTI employees came to the Ottawa Plant to clean certain tanks or reactors that GE used in its production of plastics.

Dempsey was working inside of a reactor (identified as reactor number 2) when he was injured. The reactor is a large piece of stainless steel machinery that has three blades connected to a shaft.*fn3 The agitator blades, which are used for mixing plastic and do not have sharp edges, are approximately 18 inches from the bottom of the reactor.*fn4 Dempsey climbed down a ladder into the reactor with a metal, high-pressure water gun that was hooked up to a high-pressure pump; he was wearing an oxygen mask, oxygen tank and a life line hooked up to a body harness. The water gun Dempsey was using to clean the inside of the reactor exerted 10,000 psi of pressure when the trigger was engaged. As he was water blasting the reactor, he noticed that his line (his life line, water hose, or both) was getting wrapped around the agitator blades. Additionally, the floor of the reactor was slippery from the water and the plastic material he was blasting off the reactor walls. According to Dempsey, as he slipped back, he noticed that the agitator blades had begun to rotate. The rotating blades pulled the water gun in his hand (because his line was wrapped around the blades), which jerked him backwards and caused him to engage the trigger on the water gun. The powerful water shot into and cut Dempsey's hand, penetrating along his little finger and exiting near his thumb.*fn5

Dempsey subsequently sued GE, alleging that GE's negligence caused his injuries. (The specific basis for the negligence claim is discussed below.) GE has moved for summary judgment, arguing that Dempsey's negligence claim fails because GE did not owe him a duty of care as a matter of law and was not the proximate cause of his injury.


A. Summary Judgment Standard

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is proper "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). In considering such a motion, the court construes the evidence and all inferences that reasonably can be drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See Pitasi v. Gartner Group, Inc., 184 F.3d 709, 714 (7th Cir. 1999). "Summary judgment should be denied if the dispute is 'genuine': 'if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Talanda v. KFC Nat'l Mgmt. Co., 140 F.3d 1090, 1095 (7th Cir. 1998) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). "[U]nless there is sufficient evidence favoring the nonmoving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party," there is no issue for trial. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248.

B. Analysis

To succeed on his common-law negligence claim against GE, Dempsey must prove: "the existence of a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty and an injury proximately resulting from the breach." Deibert v. Bauer Bros. Constr. Co., Inc., 566 N.E.2d 239, 241 (Ill. 1990). "Unless a duty is owed, there is no negligence." Buchaklian v . Lake County Family Young Men's Christian Assoc., 732 N.E.2d 596, 599 (Ill. App. Ct. 2000) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The two issues critical to resolving the motion for summary judgment are: 1) whether the court can conclude as a matter of law that GE did not owe Dempsey a duty of care under § 343 and § 343A of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and (2) whether there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding the proximate cause of Dempsey's injury.*fn6 We address these issues in turn below.

1. GE's Failure to Lock Down Reactor Number 2 is Not Relevant to Dempsey's Negligence Claim

Before examining those issues, however, the court first explains why another issue raised by the parties is not relevant to Dempsey's negligence claim. In his complaint, Dempsey alleges that GE owed him a duty of care, which it breached by (a) failing to lock down reactor number 2 to prevent the agitator blades from rotating while being cleaned; (b) failing to discover that reactor number 2 was not locked down; (c) failing to warn Dempsey that reactor number 2 was not locked down; and (d) authorizing Dempsey to enter reactor number 2 when GE knew or should have known that reactor number 2 was not locked down. (See Compl. ¶ 7.) It is undisputed that reactor number 2 was not locked down.*fn7 However, as it turns out, the failure to lock down reactor number 2 is not relevant. Locking down the ...

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