Trial Opens in Sugar Factory Lawsuit

by Peter Grier
The Daily Record

Trial opened Friday in the $10 million wrongful death/survival action filed by the daughter and the estate of Patricia A. "Patsy" Martin against Maryland Mechanical Systems Inc. of Highlandtown.

Martin, 36, a Domino Sugar employee, died of injuries sustained in an industrial accident in which nearly half her body was burned by a superheated slurry of water, raw sugar and calcium hydroxide while she and another worker were unclogging a strainer at the company's Baltimore plant in July 2000.

Ronald V. Miller, Jr. and Laura G. Zois, who represent Martin's estate on behalf of its personal representatives Mary M. Conner, Colleen B. Brown and James J. Martin -- three of Martin's six siblings -- blame Martin's death on the alleged "defective design" of the system Maryland Mechanical replaced under contract with Domino roughly four years before the accident occurred.

"How can you take $144,000 to build a system," Miller asked, "then say, 'I have no idea how this system works -- is it safe?'"

Martin and Michael McClain, a co-worker not fully familiar with the system, were trying to figure out how to clear the clogged strainer. Unsuccessful in their efforts, "they had one of those 'now what' moments," Miller said.

"During one of those 'now what' moments, hot slurry comes flying out of the pipe," he added. They both ran, but Martin fell on her back and was burned before McClain could help her.

Baltimore City Circuit Judge Thomas E. Noel interrupted Miller during his opening while he was describing Martin's suffering in the days following the accident, as at least one of Martin's three sisters and a niece sitting in the first row of the gallery silently sobbed.

The judge sent the jury out and called counsel to the bench to advise the plaintiff's lawyers to ask their clients "not to be so demonstrative," said J. Edward Martin, the lawyer representing Martin's daughter, Deanna Marie Melton, 9, through Robert C. Melton as her father and next friend.

"I've never heard of that before," said Martin, who is not related to the family.

Defense lawyer Douglas W. Biser conceded "this case is a very sad case," but he told the nine jurors that human error caused the accident: Martin and McClain failed to follow the established procedure for cleaning the strainer.

"Human error caused this accident. It's sad, but in the end analysis, Maryland Mechanical is not responsible," Biser said.

His client is a pipefitter and installer working under contract -- "just replacing essentially what was there" -- and had nothing to do with the design of the system, he argued.

"Joe (Joseph A.) Wires has owned this company for 33 years. He's not an engineer. He's not a designer. He knows his stuff and did his job well in this case," Biser said.

  • This case ultimately settled during the trial after plaintiffs rested their case.  This follow-up article discussing the mid-trial resolution of this tragic case.  We felt very blessed to have had the opportunity to represent this wonderful family. 
  • Learn more about products liability cases in Maryland and what goes into making a claim

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