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Patrick v. Tyson Foods, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division III

April 20, 2016



Erwin L. Davis, for appellant.

Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates & Woodyard, P.L.L.C., by: Kathlyn Graves and Jeffrey L. Spillyards, for appellees.


Appellant Daniel Patrick appeals the entry of summary judgment against him in his lawsuit against appellees Tyson Foods, Inc. ("Tyson"), Woody L. Doss, and Gregory O. Clark.[1] Appellant filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Washington County, Arkansas, seeking damages for alleged malicious prosecution, defamation of character, and outrage. Appellant's allegations arose from the following brief summary of the facts. Appellant was a long-time employee at Tyson's Springdale, Arkansas, plant until he was terminated after a February 2012 ammonia leak inside the plant. An internal investigation led by Tyson's security department investigators, Woody Doss and Gregory Clark, led Tyson to conclude that the ammonia leak was most likely caused by appellant and another employee tampering with plant equipment. Upon request, Tyson provided its investigative materials to the Springdale Police Department. The investigative materials included a video of the work area where and when the ammonia leak occurred and the internal investigators' interpretation of what appellant appeared to be doing on the video. The police forwarded the Tyson investigation materials to the Washington County prosecutor. The county prosecutor subsequently filed charges against appellant in April 2012 for second-degree criminal mischief and ten counts of third-degree battery committed against other Tyson employees who were exposed to the ammonia gas. The prosecutor nolle prossed the charges four months later in August 2012.

Appellant filed his civil complaint in June 2014. The primary accusation in appellant's complaint was that the Tyson investigators wrongly informed law enforcement that the video showed him behaving in a criminal fashion when, in reality, the video only showed that appellant was performing the routine tasks of his job. Appellees subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment in December 2014, contending that appellant could not establish all the elements of the alleged torts, nor could he prove any damages proximately caused by the alleged torts. Appellees attached affidavits, deposition testimony, the Tyson internal investigative video and report, and the Washington County criminal-charge documents. Appellant filed a response in opposition to summary judgment. The trial court determined that appellees were entitled to judgment as a matter of law and granted summary judgment. This appeal followed, and appellant contends that the trial court erred in dismissing his complaint. We disagree and affirm.

I. Standard of Review

The standard of review in the appeal of a summary judgment is well settled. Summary judgment is to be granted by a circuit court only when it is clear that there are no genuine issues of material fact to be litigated and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Benton Cnty. v. Overland Dev. Co., 371 Ark. 559, 268 S.W.3d 885 (2007). Once a moving party has established a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment, the opposing party must meet proof with proof and demonstrate the existence of a material issue of fact. Id. On appeal, we determine if summary judgment was appropriate based on whether the evidentiary items presented by the moving party in support of its motion leave a material fact unanswered. Id. This court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion was filed, resolving all doubts and inferences against the moving party. Id. Our review is not limited to the pleadings, as we also focus on the affidavits and other documents filed by the parties. Id. Conclusory allegations are, however, insufficient to create a fact issue in a summary-judgment situation. Sundeen v. Kroger, 355 Ark. 138, 133 S.W.3d 393 (2003). After reviewing undisputed facts, summary judgment should be denied if, under the evidence, reasonable men might reach different conclusions from those undisputed facts. Greenlee v. J.B. Hunt Transport Servs., Inc., 2009 Ark. 506, 342 S.W.3d 274; Sawada v. Walmart Stores, Inc., 2015 Ark.App. 549, 473 S.W.3d 60. The object of summary judgment is not to try the issues but to determine whether there are any issues to be tried. Flentje v. First Nat'l Bank of Wynne, 340 Ark. 563, 11 S.W.3d 531 (2000).

II. Statement of Evidence and Facts

A more amplified recitation of the underlying facts is necessary prior to our consideration of the arguments on appeal. In the early morning of February 6, 2012, an ammonia leak at the Tyson plant resulted in the plant being evacuated. Several law enforcement officers, fire department personnel, and emergency services personnel were dispatched to the scene. Ten Tyson plant employees were taken to the hospital for treatment of inhalation injuries. A Springdale police officer, working in conjunction with an FBI Task Force, contacted Tyson because the Springdale fire department had concerns about whether the ammonia release could have possibly been a terroristic act. Doss, one of Tyson's corporate security managers, responded to the Springdale police officer that Tyson was of the initial opinion that the event was caused by an accidental ammonia release. The police officer advised Doss to report to him if Tyson later determined that the leak was not accidental.

Tyson immediately commenced an internal investigation to determine the root cause of the ammonia release. The investigation revealed that pressure gauges indicated increased pressure in an ammonia refrigeration line shortly before the leak. It was determined that the ammonia release was caused by a partially open valve and a missing plug in a pipe located on the vacuum side of the ammonia-based refrigeration system. The partially open valve and the missing plug ultimately allowed for the ammonia to be released into the plant.

Appellant's work station was in the same area of the plant as the open valve and missing plug. The plant had previously installed ceiling-mounted security cameras. One of the security cameras covered appellant's general work area and the valve. During the investigation, Doss and other Tyson management personnel[2] reviewed the video and observed a maintenance mechanic spending what they perceived as an unusual amount of time repetitively and unnecessarily adjusting and testing plant equipment near the ammonia line. The actual valve on the ammonia line was not quite visible on the video due to the location and sight line of the video camera. Another employee was observed walking behind the maintenance mechanic while carrying and opening a bottle, an item not permitted in this area of the plant. The maintenance mechanic was then observed moving toward the valve area, and the other employee was seen bending over the valve area. Tyson investigative personnel concluded that the maintenance mechanic was attempting to shield the other employee from view and acting as a lookout, while the other employee attempted to remove ammonia from the valve. The other employee subsequently appeared startled, stood up, and quickly walked away while putting the top back on the bottle. Tyson's investigators opined that due to insufficient time, there was a failure to fully close the valve, which subsequently caused the leak. After additional investigation, Tyson identified the maintenance mechanic in the video as the appellant, Daniel Patrick.

As previously and specifically requested by the Springdale police officer, Doss reported to the Springdale police that the ammonia release no longer appeared to be accidental. In subsequent affidavits submitted with the motion for summary judgment, Clark and Doss swore that an FBI agent and a Springdale police officer came to the plant to view the security video. According to Doss's affidavit, the police officer who viewed the videotape opined that this was an attempt to steal ammonia for the purpose of manufacturing drugs. Doss and Clark interviewed appellant and the other employee seen on the video, both of whom denied any wrongdoing.

Doss and Clark subsequently prepared a special internal investigative report on this ammonia release, a typical practice for Tyson's internal use. Doss and Clark relied on the information provided by the plant management in compiling the report. Neither Doss nor Clark knew either appellant or the other Tyson employee shown on the video prior ...

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