Staging the Courtroom: The Eighth Circuit Rules on Who May Sue Whom

When deciding whether to file a lawsuit, it is imperative that it is filed against the appropriate party. Simply because a wrong is arguably attributable to a specific person or entity does not mean that is the appropriate person or entity to sue. As the Eighth Circuit recently held in Vandewarker v. Continental Resources, Inc., for the lawsuit to stand, the defendant must be found to have owed the plaintiff some type of benefit.

The Facts
Benjamin Vandewarker was employed by Great Western Resources. Continental Resources, Inc., hired Great Western as an independent contractor. As an independent contractor of Continental, Great Western was to measure wastewater levels in Continental’s holding tanks at Continental’s well sites in North Dakota. As an employee of Great Western, Vandewarker was to measure the wastewater levels and the haul wastewater from the holding tanks. To access the holding tanks, Vandewarker had to climb a metal staircase running alongside the tank. On one such occasion, Vandewarker fell 10-15 feet off one of the staircases. The fall was caused by a loose bolt on the staircase, which in turn, caused the staircase to disconnect.

The Lawsuit
Vandewarker filed suit against Continental in federal court for negligence, gross negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Vandewarker claimed that Continental failed to properly inspect and maintain the staircase and failed to provide Vandewarker with a safe work environment. During his deposition, Vandewarker claimed that Continental knew the staircase was faulty because Vandewarker had informed it of the fact two days before his fall.
Continental did not dispute Vandewarker’s claim that it had notice of the faulty staircase. Continental, however, sought to dismiss Vandewarker’s lawsuit, claiming that it did not owe Vandewarker any duty to make its premises safe. According to Continental, because Vandewarker was an employee of Great Western, which was an independent contractor of Continental, Continental did not have the right to exercise any control over the work Vandewarker performed and, therefore, a duty did not extend from Continental to Vandewarker. The federal district agreed and dismissed Vandewarker’s case.

The Appeal
Vandewarker appealed to the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit held that to hold a defendant liable for negligence, the defendant must owe the plaintiff a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury. An employer may owe an independent contractor such a duty under “an express contractual provision giving the employer the right to control the operative details of the independent contractor’s work, or by the employer’s actual exercise of retained control of the work.” Vandewarker claimed that a duty arose as to Continental on either ground.

The Eighth Circuit disagreed. As to the express contractual provision, the contract between Great Western and Continental actually placed the burden of safety on Great Western, not Continental. As to whether Continental actively controlled and supervised Vandewarker’s work, the Eighth Circuit stated that “‘merely providing equipment [to the employee of one’s independent contractor] is not the kind of control that creates a duty.’” Instead, it must be shown that the employer directly supervised or controlled the equipment’s use or instructed the independent contractor on the equipment’s use. According to the Eighth Circuit, Vandewarker failed to put forth any evidence that Continental directly supervised his work or instructed him how to use the equipment. Accordingly, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Vandewarker’s case.

The Lesson
A worker conducting business that benefits a party does not necessarily mean that the worker may hold that party liable if the work goes awry. Generally, the worker must instead determine whose responsibility it was to either supervise the worker or make the work environment safe. This is often the case when the worker is an independent contractor.

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