May and Hill v. Melrose South Pyrotechnics, Inc. – Trial Slated in Fireworks Tragedy

Trial is slated to begin this month in the case of a 2009 explosion of a truck containing fireworks on Ocracoke Island that killed four workers and seriously injured a fifth.
Earlier this year, plaintiffs in May and Hill v. Melrose South Pyrotechnics, Inc. won a substantial victory at the North Carolina Court of Appeals when the court declined to dismiss the case simply because defendant labeled decedent’s as employees. The court found such a ruling would be premature. That will be decided as a matter of fact by the jury, as opposed to being decided as a matter of law by a judge prior to trial.

The question of the relationship between the workers and defendant pyrotechnic company is an important one because if they were employees, as defendant asserts, any claims for recovery would be limited to workers’ compensation law. However, if the workers were independent contractors, as alleged by plaintiffs, they are not bound by the exclusive remedy provision of workers’ compensation benefits.

Our Charlotte wrongful death lawyers know the defendant company, based in South Carolina and now doing business as East Coast Pyrotechnics, was find $42,000 by the North Carolina Labor Department as part of a formal settlement agreement for safety violations related to the blast.

According to news reports of the case, the workers were preparing for a 40-minute Fourth of July display later that evening when the fireworks inside the rental truck exploded. At the time, the truck was reportedly holding about 680 pounds of explosives. Workers were inside the truck bed installing electric matches into the fuse ends of the aerial shells.

One of the workers had federal certification to handle fireworks. Another had led fireworks crews in the past. However, the three others had no prior fireworks experience. At the time, state law allowed only “experts” to handle large-scale fireworks. However, there was no definition for what that meant. There was no training or special certification specifically required.

That law has since changed, largely as a result of this incident. Now, anyone using pyrotechnics for public event displays must complete a mandatory training course and receive an operator’s license. Additionally, fireworks operators must now have written permission from local authorities, and they must also purchase a minimum of $500,000 in insurance coverage.

Local municipalities and counties have the option of enacting even tighter restrictions.

Defendant had appealed the denial of summary judgment in its favor earlier this year to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, arguing there was no controversy as to whether these individuals were employees. The appellate court disagreed, citing conflicting evidence and testimony from plaintiffs tending to indicate the workers were independent contractors who worked for the company on a job-by-job basis.

The company knew it would likely have to pay a greater sum if recovery wasn’t limited to workers’ compensation and workers’ compensation death benefits. That’s why they fought it so vigorously.

But plaintiffs presented evidence showing defendant wasn’t paying several of these workers directly, as they were employed by others who contracted with defendant for assistance. Additionally, several of the workers did not identify themselves as Melrose employees, and it did not appear Melrose was giving specific direction or oversight to certain workers.

The appellate court declined to classify the workers’ relationship to the company, but did say there was sufficient controversy for the question to be settled at trial.

Wayne County Superior Court Civil Calendar has set aside two weeks for the trial, beginning mid-November.

Contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
May and Hill v. Melrose South Pyrotechnics, Inc., Feb. 4, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
One Year Later: North Carolina State Fair Accident Victims Still Recovering, Oct. 28, 2014, Charlotte Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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