From the desk of Kyle Riley: Generally, an employer of independent contractors is not liable for injuries sustained by the independent contractor’s employees. There is an exception to this rule, however, that requires an employer to provide a safe working environment to independent contractors where the employer retains control over the independent contractor’s work. What happens when the contract between the employer and the independent contractor is not a standard contract, but rather a “license agreement”? Read on to find out what the Washington Court of Appeals decided.
Claims Pointer: When an employer has a licensing agreement contracting work from another company, the same rules apply to that employer as would if the other company was a standard independent contractor: the employer owes no duty to provide a safe workplace unless it retains control over some part of the “license agreement” company’s work.
Afoa v. Port of Seattle, In the Court of Appeals in the State of Washington (Case No. 64545-5-I, February 22, 2011).
Brandon Afoa was injured after a powered industrial vehicle he was operating collided with a broken piece of equipment that had been left on the tarmac of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is owned and operated by the Port of Seattle. Afoa was an employee of Evergreen Aviation Green Logistics Enterprises, Inc. (EAGLE), a company that provided aircraft ground handling services under a license agreement with the Port. When the piece of equipment fell on Afoa, it crushed his spine and left him a paraplegic. Afoa sued the Port, alleging it breached both statutory and common law duties by failing to provide him with a safe workplace. The Port moved for summary judgment, arguing that it owed no duty of care to EAGLE or EAGLE’s employees, because no employer-employee relationship existed between the parties. The trial court agreed with the Port, and granted summary judgment. Afoa appealed to the Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Afoa argued: 1) the Port owed him a common law duty to provide a safe workplace similar to the duty of a general contractor at a construction site, and 2) the Port owed him a statutory duty under the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act (WISHA).
Regarding the common law duty, the Port argued that its duty was limited to ensuring compliance with its license agreement with EAGLE, and that no employer-independent contractor relationship existed. The Court of Appeals noted that, generally, an employer is not liable for injuries sustained by an independent contractor’s employees unless the employer retains control over some part of the independent contractor’s work. In that case, the employer has a duty to provide a safe place to work. The Court found that whether the agreement between the Port and EAGLE was called a license agreement or any other term is immaterial. The issue, instead, is whether the Port has a contractual relationship by which it retains control over the manner that EAGLE provided services, and it does not matter what terms are used to describe the relationship. After examination of the license agreement, which required EAGLE to comply with the Port’s rules and regulations and to comply with the Port’s written and oral instructions regarding those rules and regulations, the Court of Appeals found a genuine issue of material fact regarding the Port’s control over EAGLE’s work, and agreed with Afoa that summary judgment was improper on this issue.
Additionally, WISHA generally imposes a statutory duty on general contractors, but the Court of Appeals noted that the statute applied not only to general contractors, but also to other parties whose relationships are sufficiently analogous to justify imposing statutory liability. The Port argued that its relationship was not sufficiently analogous because it was not an “employer” and EAGLE was not an “employee” under WISHA definitions. The Court of Appeals found that definitions of employer and employee are not important, but the important issue is whether the supervisory authority is sufficiently analogous. Because this factor also required a fact determination of whether the Port maintained control over how EAGLE employees worked, the Court of Appeals again agreed that summary judgment was improperly granted due to several genuine issues of material fact.
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.