Under Louisiana’s comparative fault system, each party in a lawsuit generally is only liable for their own percentage of fault. However, in some instances, a party may be “vicariously” liable for the fault of another party. One example of vicarious liability is an employment relationship, where an employer can be liable for the fault of its employees. On the other hand, vicarious liability generally does not apply when the alleged “employee” is found to be an independent contractor. Whether a worker qualifies as an employee or an independent contractor often becomes an important issue in suits related to construction projects.
The test for determining whether a party is an employee or an independent contractor involves analysis of who has the right to control his or her work. In the construction context, courts distinguish between “operational control” (which suggests an employment relationship) and control as it relates to the results of the work (which suggests an independent contractor relationship). Two recent cases examine this issue and provide examples of how courts analyze the type of control necessary to establish vicarious liability in the construction projects.
In Stonetrust Com. Ins. Co. v. TBT Contracting, Inc. of LA, homeowners hired a general contractor to renovate their home. During the project, an electrical subcontractor was injured after falling through an attic space. It was alleged that the general contractor created a hazard by cutting a hole in the attic and concealing it. The plaintiff sued the general contractor and the homeowner. The court had to determine whether the homeowner could be liable for the subcontractor’s injuries, which would require a finding that the homeowner was vicariously liable for the general contractor’s fault.
The plaintiff argued that the homeowners were particularly involved in the project. It presented evidence to show the homeowners would give suggestions regarding the work to be performed and also directed alterations or additions to the work. The plaintiff argued that this demonstrated control over the general contractor’s work. However, the court disagreed. Despite the homeowners’ level of involvement, the court held that their control was limited to the results of the work, and was not “operational control.” The general contractor therefore was an independent contractor, and the homeowners were not vicariously liable for its acts.
In Baham v. Fisk Elec. Co., a city worker brought suit against a general contractor after suffering injuries from an electrical shock. The worker alleged that the general contractor was vicariously liable for the fault of its subcontractor. While evidence showed the subcontractor relied on the general contractor for the location of its work, the court found that this was not “operational control.” The court observed that general contractors are entitled to exercise supervisory control over its independent contractors to ensure compliance with the contract. It further found that suggestions or instructions given to an independent contractor do not equate to control over the methods or details of the work. Absent such “operational control” vicarious liability could not be imposed.
Though they may be limited to their facts, these cases show courts usually require a showing of more than suggestions or instructions regarding the work to establish the “operational control” necessary to trigger vicarious liability. Absent such a showing, independent contractors usually remain independent.
Stonetrust Com. Ins. Co. v. TBT Contracting, Inc. of LA, 2022-0971 (La. App. 1 Cir. 4/14/23), 2023 WL 2947826
Baham v. Fisk Elec. Co., 2022-0551 (La. App. 4 Cir. 3/22/23), 2023 WL 2595253