Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Control is Critical Factor When Determining Employer-Employee Relationship

Tyson Farms, Inc. v. Uninsured Employers' Fund, 471 Md. 386 (2020), Opinion by Watts, J.    

            Tyson Farms, Inc., (hereinafter “Tyson”) is one of, if not the, largest chicken producing companies in the world. However, Tyson does not own its own farms; instead, it owns only the chickens. Tyson Farms, Inc., et al. v. Uninsured Employer’s Fund, 471 Md. 386, 393 (2020).  In order to farm the chickens it owns, Tyson contracts with farms across the United States to raise them per Tyson’s guidelines for eventual sale to the public. Id. When the chickens are ready for sale, Tyson reclaims them by paying the farms a fee for the time and effort spent raising them. Id.

              In, 2009, Mauro Jimenez Garcia began working on a Tyson-supplied chicken farm, owned by Terry Ung, as a low-skilled worker who eventually became the farm manager. Id. In 2013, Lee Ung, Mr. Ung’s wife, sold the farm to Dai K. Nguyen after her husband’s passing. Id. Due to Mr. Nguyen’s lack of chicken farming experience, he asked Mr. Garcia to continue his job as farm manager. Id. As part of the sale Tyson and Mr. Nguyen entered a contract that stated:

Tyson was required to: (1) retain title and ownership to chickens, feed, and medication and determine the amount, type, frequency, and time of delivery to and pick-up from Nguyen of chickens, feed, and medication; (2) provide veterinary services and technical advice to assist in raising the chickens; and (3) comply with all applicable federal, state, and local statutes, rules, regulations, and ordinances in performance of the Contract.

Id. at 395. Furthermore, Tyson had the ability to terminate its contract with Mr. Nguyen upon default. Id.

                In 2014, Mr. Garcia developed an occupational disease because he was “breathing dust, chemicals and ammonia in [the] chicken[] house. . ..” Id. at 391.  As a result, Mr. Garcia filed a Worker’s Compensation Claim. Id.  The parties to this claim were Mr. Garcia, Tyson, and Mr. Nguyen. Id. at 392 Mr. Nguyen, however, did not have worker’s compensation insurance, therefore, the Uninsured Employer’s Fund (“UEF”) was added as a party. Id.

    After the Workers Compensation Commission hearing, Mr. Garcia’s injuries were found to have arisen out of his employment at the chicken farm and both Mr. Nguyen and Tyson were his co-employers at the time of his injuries. Id.  Tyson, however, filed suit alleging that they were not in fact co-employers, and therefore, not liable for Mr. Garcia’s injuries. Id. Following a jury trial on said issue, the jury returned a verdict finding that Tyson was not a co-employer; therefore, Mr. Nguyen through UEF was liable for Mr. Garcia’s injuries. Id. at 402.

                Nevertheless, UEF filed an appeal stating that the Circuit Court erred when it denied its motion for judgement as a matter of law. Id. at 402.  In other words, UEF argued that it was not possible for a jury to find that Tyson was anything other than a co-employer of Mr. Garcia. On appeal the Court of Special Appeals reversed the Circuits Court’s ruling. Id. at 403. The Court stated that, among other things, the contract between Tyson and Mr. Nguyen, and Tyson’s training of Mr. Garcia was enough to establish the control factor in the well-established employer-employee relationship test in Maryland. Id.

                However, Tyson thereafter appealed to the Court of Appeals, who reversed the ruling of the Court of Special Appeals. Id. at 418. The Court stated the Court of Special Appeals confused the control factor by equating control of the worker, the correct interpretation, with control of the workplace. Id. Here, the Court said that Tyson had control of the workplace i.e., the farm, as shown by the contract it had with Mr. Nguyen. Id. However, just because Tyson controlled the workplace by restricting what kind of medication the chickens could take, along with other things, did not automatically mean that it controlled Mr. Garcia. Id. Instead, Mr. Nguyen could be said to have control of Mr. Garcia because he had the ability to fire him or adjust his wage. Therefore, to have control for purposes of establishing an employer-employee relationship, there must be a showing of control over the employee themselves, not just the workplace. Id. at 418.

                Furthermore, the Court stated that in this case specifically, the evidence at trial showed that there could be “conflicting inferences . . . as to whether Tyson had sufficient control over Garcia’s work performance.” Id. at 420. This was due to the fact that in addition to the facts stated above, Tyson representatives often communicated with Mr. Garcia any changes that needed to be made. Id. Likewise, Mr. Garcia was authorized to deal with Tyson employees when they visited the farm. Id. Therefore, this was a matter for the jury to decide, not the judge, and the Court of Special Appeals erred in overturning the Circuit Courts denial of UEF’s motion for judgement. Id. at 424.

                Nevertheless, in his dissent, Justice McDonald agreed with the majority opinion in the Court of Special Appeals. Id. at 427. Justice McDonald stated the evidence showed that Tyson trained Mr. Garcia in their best practices for raising Tyson chickens and directed him in how to operate the farm. Id. at 428. Likewise, Tyson required Mr. Garcia’s presence on the farm at all times. Id. All things, in culmination with the other contractual requirements, established that Tyson as a matter of law had control over Mr. Garcia. Id. at 429.

                In conclusion, when determining if an employer-employee relationship has been established the element of control is paramount. Id. at 418.  As the Court of Appeals stated, control requires a showing of control over the employee themselves and not the workplace. Id.  Likewise, it will be more often a question for the jury to determine if such control existed. Id. at 424. 

 -Robert Merrifield, Law Clerk

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

When Negligence is Not Contributory Negligence

 Blake v. Chadwick, No. 1939, 2021 Md. App. LEXIS 164 (February 26, 2021), Opinion by Moylan, J.        

            Maryland’s adherence to the doctrine of contributory negligence provides a powerful tool to tort defendants to eviscerate potential claims, particularly in circumstances where the liability of the tort defendant appears fairly obvious.  In those circumstances it is understandable for defendants to focus on any and all potential negligent acts of a plaintiff when analyzing whether the claim may be completely barred by the contributory negligence of the plaintiff.  A recent case from the Court of Special Appeals serves as a reminder that the focus on the plaintiff’s actions or inactions should not be the only inquiry when determining if a plaintiff’s negligence arises to contributory negligence.

              In late July 2016, Plaintiff Annette Blake (“Plaintiff”) learned firsthand that the radiator in her minivan was faulty, causing her vehicle to periodically overheat and stall.  Two days later, Plaintiff, accompanied by her two grandchildren, set out to purchase a new radiator and then return to her mechanic across town.  Unfortunately, during the return trip, Plaintiff found herself in the right lane of a shoulderless Martin Luther King Boulevard when her vehicle’s radiator began overheating again.  As a result, Plaintiff’s vehicle stalled in the right lane during the height of rush hour traffic.

             One of the defendants, Denia Phillips Watkins (“Watkins”), found herself situated and stopped in the right lane directly behind Plaintiff’s stalled vehicle.  As such, Watkins had to wait for an opportunity to merge to the center lane to get around Plaintiff’s stalled vehicle.  Contemporaneously, the other defendant, David Chadwick (“Chadwick”), a Baltimore City employee, traveled on the same road in the far-left lane.  Chadwick admitted he saw and took note of Plaintiff’s stalled vehicle.  He then received a call from a city dispatcher calling him to report to a nearby emergency, prompting him to change his route and merge from the far-left lane into the center lane.  Unfortunately, both Chadwick and Watkins made simultaneous attempts to enter the same space in the center lane.  In doing so, their vehicles collided, causing Watkins to strike the side of Plaintiff’s stalled vehicle.

    Plaintiff sued Chadwick and Watkins for negligence in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City.  The defendants filed motions for summary judgement arguing that Plaintiff was contributorily negligent in knowingly operating her vehicle with a faulty radiator and that her vehicle may stall at any moment, which caused or contributed to the accident.  The trial court ruled on the motions in the defendants’ favor. Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals recognized Plaintiff’s improvident decisions that set in motion the events leading to the accident, namely operating a vehicle with a faulty radiator in rush hour traffic on a road with no shoulder during the late afternoon of a hot summer day.  The issue, however, was whether Plaintiff’s actions were tantamount to contributory negligence.  On this, the appellate court disagreed with the trial court.

In reaching their conclusion, the appellate court noted that both Chadwick and Watkins were aware of Plaintiff’s stopped vehicle in advance of the collision.  The court concluded that the facts suggested that while Chadwick and Watkins were independently or concertedly negligent in trying to enter the center lane without taking into account each other’s vehicles, Plaintiff’s stopped vehicle was present and known to both defendants for a sufficient period of time.  Accordingly, the negligence of Plaintiff, if any, was passive, potential, distinct, and independent of a collision that was caused by the active negligence of one, or both, of the defendants.

This decision highlights the fact that one cannot simply look to see if a plaintiff acted in some negligent manner leading up to an accident to determine if they were contributorily negligent.  Instead, the totality of the circumstance must be considered, and the actions or inactions of the tortfeasors should also be weighed against the actions or inactions of the potentially contributorily negligent plaintiff to ascertain the actual and proximate cause(s) of an accident.  If the plaintiff’s potential negligence is passive, distinct, and independent of and more attenuated to the cause of an accident, then there is a legitimate question as to whether a plaintiff’s negligence was contributory.


-Benjamin Beasley, Associate Attorney