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Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit decided the case of Victoria Jeffords as Administrator of the Estate of Donald Jeffords v. BP Products North America, Inc., et al., which was an appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division. No. 19-1533 (June 29, 2020). The court's ruling provides some additional insight into facts courts deem relevant in construction negligence actions, and specifically, what facts can trigger liability of contractors, general contractors and construction managers when employees of independent contractors are injured on a project.

Overview

Plaintiff Donald Jeffords worked for an independent contractor at an oil refinery owned by defendant BP. He was injured after falling from a catwalk on the body of a crane. BP contracted with defendant Fluor Constructors, International to provide construction management services.  Defendants BP and Fluor each entered into separate contracts with defendant MC Industrial (MCI) to provide construction services.  Jeffords was employed by Central Rent-A-Crane who also had a contract with BP.  Central was not a defendant in the case and had no contractual relationship with defendants Fluor or MCI.  Jeffords initially filed a lawsuit in state court, which was ultimately removed to federal court because of diversity of citizenship of the parties.  Plaintiff pled counts of negligence against BP, Fluor and MCI, and all defendants moved for summary judgment. Applying Indiana’s substantive law, negligence claims in Indiana require a plaintiff prove a defendant owed him a duty and breached that duty in a way that caused the injury.  Without defendants owing plaintiff the duty to exercise reasonable care, there cannot be any breach of that duty.  The trial court granted the motions for summary judgment, ruling none of the defendants owed Jeffords a duty of care.  Jeffords appealed the trial court’s granting of summary judgment in this construction negligence dispute.

In affirming the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment to all defendants, the Seventh Circuit noted numerous Indiana cases that formulate the proposition of control equaling responsibility in construction negligence actions – i.e., where an employer controls working conditions, that employer must take reasonable care to provide a safe environment.  A principal may assume by contract a specific non-delegable duty of care towards employees of one of its contractors and even construction managers can voluntarily assume such a duty through its conduct.

The Appellate Court went on to assess the duty of the various parties to the plaintiff.  The court noted that within one of the contracts involving one defendant, there was a contractual provision regarding “subcontractor safety”. However, such a provision did not create a duty for that defendant because plaintiff’s employer was not a subcontractor to that defendant. Hence, that contractual responsibility did not pertain to plaintiff.  In fact, none of the contracts to which defendants were a party assigned any defendant the responsibility for safety of plaintiff's employer.

Also of note for construction clients is the court’s reiteration that OSHA regulations cannot be used to expand or otherwise affect common law duties or liabilities of a defendant or serve as evidence of an expanded standard of care. Here, plaintiff attempted to argue that alleged breaches of OSHA regulations were a valid basis for his claims of negligence. But the court noted that even though there were some provisions in defendants’ contracts requiring OSHA compliance, plaintiff was not a party to such contracts and further, he also was not a third-party beneficiary.

This ruling indicates that where an injured worker is not employed by a party in contractual privity with defendants, the injured worker may have difficulty convincing courts those defendants owed a duty of care. Further, this case holding serves as another example of a court declining to expand common law duties because of contractual provisions requiring OSHA compliance.