The U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit upheld a District Court ruling in early 2011 allowing a contractor out of a negligence suit following a tragic incident in which a young man was electrocuted while trimming trees. The Court held Defendant Contractor Camp Dresser & McKee, Inc. (CDM) did not have a duty to protect a subcontractor from injury and therefore could not be held negligent. Because there was no contract between the contractor and the tree service subcontractor, the Court held there was no principal-independent contractor relationship that would have formed a duty.
Chad Groover, an employee of Groover Tree Service (GTS), was operating an aerial lift and cutting trees on the morning of December 7, 2006, north of Slidell when the basket he was riding in made contact with an energized line. Groover’s brother, Larry Groover, witnessed the electrocution. Chad Groover was severely injured at the scene and sadly died seven months later from complications. The family of the deceased brought a negligence action against several defendants, including the contractor CDM, a CDM worksite monitor, and CDM’s insurers, Zurich American Insurance Company and ACE American Insurance Company. The suit alleged CDM’s negligence caused Larry Groover to suffer mental anguish when he witnessed his brother’s death.
Proving negligence requires proof that the negligent party owed a duty to the injured party. Duty implies a special relationship or can be established by law. The Defendants filed motions for summary judgment arguing they did not have a legal duty to protect Chad Groover from injury. Plaintiffs averred in a cross motion for partial summary judgment Defendants had a statutorily provided duty to have the power company de-energize the lines.
Summary judgment is appropriate if the the person claiming it shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. If the movant demonstrates the absence of a genuine issue of material fact the burden shifts to the non-movant to provide specific facts showing the existence of a genuine issue for trial. The issue as to whether a defendant owes a duty is a question of law. In deciding whether to impose a duty in a particular case, Louisiana courts examine whether the plaintiff has any law to support the claim that the defendant owed him a duty. Here, Plaintiffs provided no such law.
In their argument, Groover’s side argued CDM was a principal and GTS was an independent contractor. Plaintiffs contended CDM had a duty to GTS because CDM controlled and expressly authorized the unsafe work practices that let to Chad Groover’s death.
A principal, contractor relationship is in large measure determined by the terms of the contract between them. CDM and GTS did not have a contract. CDM’s contract was with the Parish. GTS’s contract was an oral one with another one of CDM’s subcontractors. Under Louisiana law, a principal is not liable for the injuries resulting from the negligent acts of an independent contractor, unless the principal retained “operational control” over the contractor’s work, expressly or impliedly approved the unsafe work practices, or the activity is ultra hazardous. Instantly, the Court held that the Plaintiffs side failed to provide evidence sufficient to show a principal-contractor relationship existed between the parties. Therefore, Defendant CDM owed no duty.
The Court also held the Louisiana Overhead Power Line Safety Act did not provide a statutory duty as the Act merely provides a means by which powerline operators and owners can hold individuals and companies liable for all damages, costs, or expenses incurred by the owner or operator as a result of contact with powerlines during the course of unauthorized work. Therefore, when doing work as a subcontractor it is important to ensure a valid contract exists between the parties.
If you have been injured on the job, hiring an attorney to discuss your rights is important. By hiring an attorney with experience and a thorough understanding of the law, you can protect your ability to recover for damages suffered.
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