Property owner not liable when employee of independent contractor was injured.

Where a plaintiff was injured while working on a construction site owned by defendant, but the trial court ruled that plaintiff was actually an employee of an independent contractor retained by defendant, the Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict finding defendant only 10% at fault for plaintiff’s injuries.

In Helton v. Lawson, No. E2018-2119-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2019), Defendant was having a house built on a piece of property that he owned, and he had retained “local handyman Gene Housewright” to help. Housewright was then contacted by plaintiff, who was looking for a job, and Housewright told him he needed laborers for defendant’s house project. On November 6, 2012, Housewright and another worker had assembled bracing to be used when working on the house. Later than day, plaintiff was standing on the bracing and was injured when the bracing pulled loose from the house, causing him to fall.

Plaintiff did not seek workers’ compensation benefits, but instead brought this negligence suit against defendant. Plaintiff asserted that he was employed by defendant, and because defendant did not have workers’ compensation insurance on plaintiff at the time of the injury, he was forced to seek his remedy in tort. Plaintiff argued that defendant “was the provider of the unsafe and defective bracing equipment and breached his duty of care” to plaintiff. Defendant responded by asserting that “he was not [plaintiff’s] employer and was not responsible for the negligent acts of Housewright and his employees.”

The case was tried by a jury, who heard testimony from defendant that he did not tell Housewright to hire others to work on the project, did not control who Housewright hired, and did not schedule the work. Defendant said he only paid Housewright and “was unaware of how Housewright paid the workers.” Defendant admitted, though, that he obtained all the necessary permits as general contractor. Housewright also testified, stating that he hired plaintiff and that he was plaintiff’s “boss and/or supervisor.” Housewright stated that the laborers took direction from him, and that defendant did not even know of plaintiff being hired. Plaintiff testified that he was told that “while on [defendant’s] property, [he] worked for [defendant].” He also testified that defendant purchased the materials used to build the bracing, but that Housewright assembled them. The jury eventually found that Housewright was 60% at fault, defendant was 10% at fault, and plaintiff was 30% at fault. The jury also found that plaintiff was not entitled to any damages. This appeal followed.

The Court of Appeals began with a discussion of possible workers’ compensation implications, then moved on to consider whether plaintiff was an employee of defendant. When considering whether someone is an employee, factors to consider include “the right to control the conduct of the work; the right of termination; the method of payment; the freedom to select and hire helpers; the furnishing of tools and equipment; self-scheduling of working hours; and the freedom to offer services to other entities.” (internal citation and roman numerals omitted). Based on the facts here, the Court of Appeals found that Housewright was an independent contractor hired by defendant as general contractor, and that the facts supported the jury’s finding that plaintiff was an employee of Housewright, not defendant. In addition, because plaintiff elected to bring this suit for negligence, he waived his right to pursue any “possibly applicable provisions” of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

Having determined that defendant was not plaintiff’s employer and that workers’ compensation remedies were waived, the Court then looked to the negligence claim.

In premises liability cases, persons in control of real property have a duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent injury to persons lawfully on the premises. Under Tennessee law, the employee of an independent contractor enjoys the status of an invitee while performing work on the premises of the owner-contractee….[T]he premises owner owes the employee the duty to exercise reasonable care to see that an employee has a reasonably safe place to work.

(internal citations and quotations omitted). Tennessee law places the duty of reasonable care on the person in control of the premises. “If…the contractor had complete control of the premises where the accident occurred and the owner had retained no control of that part of the premises… then the owner owes no duty of care to the employees of the contractor.” (internal citation omitted). In this case, the Court held that the trial court correctly instructed the jury regarding the law of negligence, and that the finding that defendant was only 10% at fault was supported by the evidence presented at trial.

Although the Court affirmed the liability findings, it overturned the jury’s finding that plaintiff was entitled to no damages. The Court found that there was no evidence to support the finding of no damages, as there wasuncontroverted  evidence that plaintiff sustained a serious injury. The Court accordingly vacated the damages finding and remanded for further consideration of that issue.

This case is a good reminder to name all potential tortfeasors in a lawsuit. Here, plaintiff did not name Housewright as a defendant, so despite the jury’s finding that Housewright was 60% at fault, plaintiff will not collect any damages from him in this suit.  Note:  both plaintiff and defendant were unrepresented by a lawyer before the Court of Appeals.

 

NOTE:  to aid lawyers in giving clients guidance about how long it takes to receive an opinion after oral argument in the appellate courts, we are going to start sharing that information with readers.   Please understand that the length of time that elapses between oral argument and the date the opinion is released is dependent on a multitude of factors, not the least of which is the complexity of the issues presented.  In this case, the opinion was released about seven months after oral argument.