Judge affirms arbitrator's award against Pilgrim's Pride in personal injury case

Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau Nov. 12, 2008, 6:49am

MARSHALL -- U.S. District Judge T. John Ward affirmed an arbitration award for $765,000 in a case involving a man injured after falling from a commercial freezer.

While employed as a cleaner at Pilgrim's Pride in Mount Pleasant, Texas, Gabriel Acuna was severely injured after falling from the top of the freezer.

In order to comply with state and federal health guidelines, Acuna was required by Pilgrim's Pride to clean the top portion of the freezer because various pieces of processed chicken had been blown on top of it by the air transfer unit.

On March 7, 2005, Acuna climbed to the top of the freezer without the assistance of a ladder. When he placed his weight on top of the freezer, a stainless steel panel collapsed and he fell approximately 16 feet, resulting in brain injuries and injuries to his back, neck and shoulder.

Acuna filed suit against Aerofreeze Inc. and Pilgrim's Pride on Oct. 16, 2006, in the Marshall Division of the Eastern District of Texas.

The lawsuit accused the defendant of strict products liability, negligence, and gross negligence for failure to properly design the freezer with a fixed ladder, failure to design the panels to hold a person's weight for cleaning, and failure to warn of the risks and dangers associated with cleaning the top portion of the freezer.

The lawsuit was seeking damages for physical pain, mental anguish, and loss of earning capacity, disfigurement, physical impairment and medical care.

Responding to the litigation, Aerofreeze denied the allegations and contends the plaintiff was the sole proximate cause of the incident and his injuries.

The case was closed pending conclusion of arbitration involving the plaintiff and defendants Aerofreeze and Pilgrim's Pride.

In August, the arbitrator rendered his final award finding Pilgrim negligent and ordering it to pay over $385,000 plus post-judgment interest.

Defendant Aerofreeze had previously settled Acuna's claims for $375,000.

Pilgrim's Pride filed a motion to vacate the award, which Judge Ward denied at the end of October. Within the motion, Pilgrim's argued that the arbitrator disregarded applicable Texas law by choosing to use a general negligence standard instead of premises liability standard.

Pilgrim's Pride maintains that Acuna's injuries were caused by a dangerous condition rather than negligent activities of an employer.

Pilgrim also argues that the arbitrator's analysis under Texas law resulted in "significant injustice" as the findings were not enough to hold Pilgrim liable for the plaintiff's injuries.

Citing case law that courts cannot review an arbitrator's decision based on merits, Judge Ward wrote, "This Court therefore rejects Pilgrim's contention that the arbitrator manifestly disregarded applicable Texas law in reaching a conclusion in this case."

Continuing, Judge Ward states that the arbitrator did follow Texas law and did not exceed its powers or engage in misconduct by not applying premise liability.

The October order denied Pilgrim's motion to vacate and confirmed the arbitrator's award of over $765,000.

Longview attorney Gregory P. Love of the Love and Goolsby LLP law firm, attorney Jimmy V. Delgado of the Houston Delagado Law Firm PC and attorney Glenn M. Douglas of the Houston law firm Crowley, Douglas, and Norman LLP represented the plaintiff in his allegations.

Case No 2:06cv00432

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